Don’t Use Culture to Sell Fashion

Every fashion line has a source of inspiration. Even Will Ferrell’s character, Mugatu, in the 2001 blockbuster Zoolander fashions “derelicte” after “the homeless” and “the vagrants” (This is actually a parody of then-Christian Dior designer John Galliano’s Spring 2000 “hobo-chic” line).

But this fall’s latest inspiration became controversial when retailers, and subsequently fashion magazines started using “Navajo” as a descriptor of clothing, accessories and trends. The Navajo are a Native-American tribe originating from the southwest.

The controversy: Navajo is a culture—not a fashion trend!

On Columbus Day this year Sasha Houston

Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, wrote an open letter to Urban Outfitters and its CEO, Glen T. Senk questioning the use of the Navajo label on items such as the “Navajo Hipster Panty.” By the end of the day Urban Outfitters renamed all 21 products that had used the Navajo descriptor.

The most recent culprit of this fashion gaffe is Forever 21. The affordable-yet-trendy chain was recently caught selling necklaces with charms picturing stereotypical Native American and Asian girls. It was quickly discovered that the imaging was not the only controversial aspect of the necklaces: the charm necklace featuring an Asian girl was called “Oriental Girl Necklace.” Currently, these necklaces cannot be found on the Forever 21 website.

The fashion industry is beginning to tread into cultural inspiration, which is acceptable. But defaming a culture, turning it into an adjective and labeling items with these desensitized modifiers is appalling.


Gerilyn Manago

2 thoughts on “Don’t Use Culture to Sell Fashion

  1. I received some feedback on my article via Facebook message today.


    “I just wanted to let you know I found your article interesting. I think this topic actually can be debated in many ways, considering that it’s become a matter of what is considered to be “taken too far” in the fashion industry. Your article is a debate on “fashion ethics”, if you will, and “commodification of culture”, which I don’t think a lot of people realize is happening. You represent your viewpoint strongly, in a way that people who are not familiar with fashion design or merchandising will understand.

    Coming from the designer’s perspective, however, I understand the importance of inspiration in creating an innovative apparel line. My concern, however, is not the descriptive in itself, but how it is used, what it refers to. So I’m curious as to your own personal view as well: when does “just enough” become “too much”? What makes “aloha attire” or “aloha wear” or “Hawaiian print” different from “Navajo” being used in a sales pitch? Is there an alternative to describing these items thats more appropriate?

    Over all, I thought you brought an issue to the attention of fashion consumers that many of them don’t think about, and I am glad that you chose that topic simply for ethical reasons.”


    “Thanks for reading!

    I agree with you; there’s a fine line between what is and is not accepted in fashion. Although I believe in “pushing the envelope,” I also understand the sensitivity to the description (“Navajo”).

    Because “aloha” has flexible meaning–hello, goodbye, friendly, etc.–I don’t think there’s any “damage” in using it as a descriptive: “aloha spirit,” “aloha attire,” etc. It has become something unique to the island culture over time. (I don’t consider myself an expert, though, and don’t know the reaction of the Native Hawaiians when the phrases were first implemented.)

    As for the word “Hawaiian,” I’ve learned that it can mean more than one thing, too. For example, people from Ohio call themselves Ohioans, people from California call themselves Californians, etc. Therefore, people I meet ask if I’m Hawaiian. For me, I specify because I think being Hawaiian and being Native Hawaiian are different things.”

  2. Pingback: DON’T USE CULTURE TO SELL FASHION « A Story Aggregator

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