As much as the Internet may like to rave about over-sensitivity, when it comes to cultural appropriation, the difference between offensive stereotyping and sensitive, artful homage is primarily one of laziness. That difference was clearer than ever at the most recent Nicholas K. show at NYFW.
Photo: MCV Photo.
According to a press release we received from the brand, models were sent down the runway in a "modern tribal warrior" makeup look (quotes are actually theirs, oddly enough) for a show that was "heavily influenced by Native American tribal themes." Ah, yes. "Tribal themes." All those Native Americans, with their tribes, and their themes — what a wonderfully specific, carefully-researched reference to make at Fashion Week, where cultures can be condensed and minimized for the sake of "trend."
See, the problem here isn't even necessarily that Native American cultural imagery — or any cultural imagery, for that matter — cannot inspire or be referenced by a person outside of that culture. If a designer sees something he or she finds beautiful, and wants to integrate that theme into a collection or a show after having made at least a minimal effort to learn about the origin of the imagery or the cultural context, that's generally not a problem.
Click through to the next page to read on (and see more photographic evidence).
Photo: MCV Photo.
Alexander McQueen did something of the sort, albeit with a much more unsettling commentary on sociopolitical issues, in his groundbreaking Highland Rape collection. But, sending a bunch of models down the runway with headbands, feathers, and some reddish "sunburned" eye makeup and then calling it "tribal" is not an example of homage. It's just lazy, and it further promotes the stereotype that all Native Americans share one culture that is primarily based on the wearing of headdresses.
The Kunz siblings behind the brand grew up in Tucson, near an Apache reservation, so we'd expect to see something a tad more nuanced. Style.com writes about the show that "Native American themes can go politically incorrect fast, but the Kunzes' closeness to the subject kept it in check." On the contrary, we'd argue that being "close" to a culture doesn't give you a free pass to haphazardly throw it around whenever and however you feel like it; rather, it gives you a responsibility to depict said culture in a way that is interesting, innovative, and true to life. That's all the more important in an industry that makes the same mistakes over and over again when it comes to Native American cultural appropriation. So, is this the most blasphemous, offensive, horrible thing on Earth? No. It's not even the most offensive representation of Native Americans we've seen. But it is a big disappointment, and it feels like a missed opportunity to demonstrate how cross-cultural communication can be valuable and inspiring.