Jessica R. Metcalfe complains. It comes with the territory, being a prominent watchdog blogger and scholar who covers and studies how Native American imagery is appropriated for fashion.
She calls designers and companies out on her blog, Beyond Buckskin, when they misuse Native imagery (think: headdresses on the Victoria's Secret runway, "Navajo" print panties at Urban Outfitters). Sometimes they apologize; sometimes they don't. She complains, and usually that's it.
But when Metcalfe (who is Turtle Mountain Chippewa) lodged a complaint against family-friendly clothing and accessories company Paul Frank Industries in September 2012, the brand's response surprised her.
The reason she complained? Paul Frank hosted a very photographed, very offensive powwow-themed party (held in conjunction with Fashion's Night Out) where attendees were photographed playing with toy tomahawks, mock-scalping each other, and sporting "war paint" in celebration of the launch of the brand's Native-inspired T-shirt line, which featured the iconic monkey character Julius in a headdress and pictured with a dreamcatcher under the phrase "caught in a dream."
Metcalfe sent a message to the company and posted it on its Facebook wall, too. She and Native Appropriations blogger Adrienne Keene (Cherokee) were at the fore of the discussion. Her demands included that, in addition to the 1,000-plus photos being removed from the social networking site, an apology must be issued for the blatant racism. She also suggested that if Paul Frank was genuinely interested in Native American culture and designs, then the folks at the company should consider working with a native designer.
"[Paul Frank's president Elie Dekel] extended an invitation to take this bad situation and make it something good," Metcalfe says. "So that's what we've been working on for the last nine months."
The company reached out to Keene and Metcalfe, who runs an all-Native online shop called Beyond Buckskin Boutique in conjunction with her blog, and asked how to move forward and create a line with Native designers.
"It was a complete shock and surprise for me because whenever I do critique companies and individuals I rarely get a response from those companies," she says. So, a little hesitant, she offered up talented designers that she thought could stylistically gel with the company to create a collaborative line.
From that list, Paul Frank chose four designers from across North America to work on the collaborative line: Dustin Quinn Martin (Navajo), Candace Halcro (Cree/Metis), Louie Gong (Nooksack), and Autumn Dawn Gomez (Comanche/Taos).
Martin is known for his graphic T-shirts, and Halcro makes beaded sunglasses and accessories. Gomez works with plastic hama fuse beads to make jewelry, while Gong customizes footwear. Each designer has worked in his or her own medium and trademark style to create pieces for the limited edition collection.
"Each one of us is inspired by our lineage and native artists," Martin says. "I think more than anything what guided me was making sure that I created a design that spoke to the controversy that incited the collaboration. That was what I kept in mind the whole time. I wanted to pay lip service to the roots of the collaboration."
He says his design, which incorporates the silhouettes of a man and woman, was inspired by a saying his grandfather taught him, "Point lips not fingers." It's a way of referencing how the collaboration came about, and how he and his fellow designers are not seeking retribution, but giving the company guidance and an education. "That's what I hope the design achieves in literal terms with the image and on a more conceptual level."
Halcro says the opportunity is amazing. "I think it`s going to give, not only the artists involved with this particular collaboration, but First Nations as a whole a chance to be seen in a different light."
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Metcalfe has served as an informal consultant on the project, and she hopes that it's the start of a new wave in the fashion world. "This has never happened before," she says. "There's been collaborations before where there's been a brand or company putting out their Native line, getting severe backlash, and then genuinely wanting to learn from it. It's the first time a company is listening and responding.
"We are very optimistic and willing to work hard to create this model -- to create a project or program where it is easy to work with native artists and do it properly if they're going to participate in a trend that profits from a culture," she says. "Instead of just yelling around about it, we want to make it better how ever we can."
The groundbreaking line will be released August 16 at dual launch parties, one during the 92nd annual Santa Fe Indian Market and another at the Magic 2013, a fashion industry trade show in Las Vegas.