UPDATE: Ralph Lauren has issued an apology to CNN in which they state, "Ralph Lauren has a longstanding history in celebrating the rich history, importance and beauty of our country's Native American heritage. We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them from our website."
Though Ralph Lauren seems like it's been a part of Americana since the covered-wagon days, it actually was started in 1967. That's approximately 100 years after the "allotment and assimilation era" of American history, when Native communities were forced to assimilate to their oppressors' culture, religion, language, and ways of dress. Ralph Lauren's founding date was also 100 years after these images of Native American men and women (currently being used to sell Ralph Lauren's RRL collection) were taken.
The image at the left is from a new campaign on the Ralph Lauren website for its diffusion line, RRL. It's an example of one of the fashion industry's ugliest habits: using borrowed imagery without telling the whole story. The campaign features vintage photographs of Native Americans dressed in tweedy jackets, chambray shirts, and European-style ties — and has prompted activists to #BoycottRalphLauren on Twitter and other social media outlets.
Ralph Lauren has built a fashion empire out of his romantic interpretations of the Old West, from gun-slinging cowboys — an image the Bronx-raised Ralph Lifshitz (he changed his name to Lauren in his teens) cultivated for himself — to traditional Southwestern imagery and symbols. Indeed, Lauren was building replica teepees on his palatial estate and incorporating Navajo-inspired prints into his clothes way before Urban Outfitters and Coachella launched a thousand inappropriate headdresses.
Now, the line between celebrating a different culture and misappropriating it can be a fine one. Many of the fashion industry's culturally insensitive blunders, such as Pharrell wearing a headdress for ELLE UK, come across as clueless rather than outright cruel. Yet, the RRL campaign feels especially insensitive because it isn't even attempting to elevate, marvel at, or admire a particular aspect of Native art or culture. Its images depict a particularly gruesome time in American history: the late 19th to early 20th century — a time of genocide and forced assimilation. It's one thing to romanticize a culture; it's another to glorify such a shameful time in history. As with Blake Lively's controversial Antebellum South shoot several months earlier, it's tough to be inspired by an era's aesthetic — however beautiful — when you can't reasonably separate these images from the slavery, genocide, and oppression they represent.
Furthermore, many of the photographs in the RRL lookbook aren't particularly flattering to Native Americans, either. Many of the stoic subjects look almost coarsened by their European-style, button-up blazers and ties. We're fairly confident that these portraits were taken under bitter circumstances. To use them as a celebration of a clothing collection that includes elements "borrowed" (or "stolen," depending on how kind you're feeling right now) from Native traditions — including Ganado weaving and animal-skin fringe — feels particularly obtuse.
Creative people find inspiration anywhere. That's part of the beauty of fashion and art. Taking only what you find personally pleasing, though, without taking the time to really understand the origin and context of certain objects, patterns, and forms is not a behavior that gets a free pass anymore. We’ve expanded our definitions of beauty and fashion to allow for so much more diversity and inclusion; let’s add respect for other cultures into the mix as well.