Why luxury fashion and cultural appropriation are on a collision course.
By Vanessa Friedman
Sept. 13, 2019
A frame from the Christian Dior “We Are the Land” fragrance film.
A stubbled white loner in a serape, a deep ocean blue shirt and multiple beaded chains and bracelets stares moodily at desert landscape lit by the blood reds of sunset. A Native American in classic regalia dances atop a mesa.
A girl in what looks like a wolf-skin peers through grass. The loner happens upon an electric guitar under a blanket and begins to play. The Native American dances more. “We are the land” is intoned. The word “Sauvage” appears across the screen.
Then a bottle of cologne. Then the message: “The parfum from Dior.”
This is a commercial no one is ever supposed to see again.
Two weeks after the French luxury brand revealed the teaser trailer for the ad, setting off what seemed like a justifiable (and thus preventable) firestorm on social media thanks to the juxtaposition of Native American tradition and a word that sounded a lot like a historic racial slur — two weeks after Dior pulled the teaser from social media and began trying to explain — the company has effectively given up on the whole thing.
Today it released this statement:
“The House of Dior has long been committed to promoting diversity and has no tolerance for discrimination in any form.
Recently, a film trailer for the Sauvage fragrance was posted on social media and immediately withdrawn.
We are deeply sorry for any offense caused by this new advertising campaign, which was meant to be a celebration of the beauty, dignity, and grace of the contemporary Native American culture.
As a consequence, we have decided not to release this version of the campaign.”
Dior has decided to cancel the film campaign and use only print stills that feature Johnny Depp, the face of the fragrance. The Native American contribution has essentially been erased, along with their presence — though it will live on, as most such things do, in bootleg copies online.
But why did it take so long? (It seems so long ago, you wonder if anyone even remembers.) And is this really a solution?
As the European leg of the monthlong run of fashion shows begins, with boldface brand names from New York, London, Milan and Paris flooding Instagram with catwalk pictures and thousands of potential pitfalls, it is worth digging a little deeper into the answer.
Because if one thing is certain, it is that this will probably happen again.
Fashion has a cultural appropriation problem. And instead of getting better, as brands increasingly get called out and criticized, it seems to be getting worse.
The examples are easy to find: Prada and its Gollywog, Gucci and its blackface controversy, Carolina Herrera and its potential exploitation of indigenous Mexican techniques, Kim Kardashian West’s appropriation of the Japanese word “kimono” for her shapewear line (a name she has since changed to Skims).
Viewers roll their eyes in disgust and amazement, and ask: How did this billion-dollar globe-straddling company make this mistake at this time, when no one is willing to turn a blind eye anymore?
It’s easy to blame myopia (European brands don’t understand the history they are turning into a cliché) and poetic license (designers have always borrowed).
And there’s a certain amount of jumping-to-conclusions before all the facts are in that comes from the anonymity of the social media mob. But the Dior brouhaha also suggests there is something deeper at work.
From Gucci’s fall 2018 collection.CreditFilippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Because here’s the thing: Dior knew better. It had been through this last November, when a campaign for the pre-spring collection starring Jennifer Lawrence wearing clothes inspired by the Mexican escaramuzas did not go down well.
The company then addressed the issue specifically in the cruise collection, held in Marrakesh and done in collaboration with several African artists and artisans (that wasn’t without controversy but was generally seen as a step forward). This time, the house thought it had acted better.
But none of that seemed to matter.
The campaign, which was for the latest version of Sauvage, a men’s scent created in 1966, was called “We are the Land.” It was shot by Jean-Baptiste Mondino and starred Mr. Depp as well as Canku One Star of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
When Dior decided on the concept of the Sauvage ad (which follows a commercial made in 2015, when Mr. Depp joined the brand, that showed him on the open road in the West, doing similar sorts of soul-searching loner things), the brand reached out to an indigenous advocacy organization, Americans for Indian Opportunity, as advisers. (The head of the A.I.O., Ladonna Harris, had been instrumental in having Mr. Depp adopted as part of the Comanche Nation during the filming of “The Lone Ranger.”)
After the uproar over the ad, a statement came from the organization, noting: “The goals of Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) for providing consultations on media productions are to ensure inclusion of paid Native staff, artists, actors, writers, etc., to educate the production teams on Native American contemporary realities and to create allies for Indigenous peoples. AIO does not speak for all Native Americans. We are proud to have successfully achieved our goals of education and inclusion for this project with Parfums Christian Dior.”
Later A.I.O. disavowed its involvement on Instagram, writing, “Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) deeply regrets its participation in the Dior campaign.” Calls and emails to the group were not immediately returned.
Not that anyone watching the teaser knew of their relationship when it still existed, of course, which was part of the problem: Dior executives may have taken steps to “educate” themselves but hadn’t thought it through enough to frame the campaign beforehand; hadn’t grasped the fact that in the decontextualized reality of social media it’s not intentions that matter, but the results. And the history.
ohnny Depp in a Dior Sauvage ad.CreditRahman Hassani/SOPA Images, via LightRocket, via Getty Images
The genesis of high-fashion brands is entirely tied up with elitism and European colonialism, with a past that includes obsessively cultivating so-called heritage and serving as the totems of privilege.
They are purveyors of products meant for the very rich and the very few (even if that definition has changed and democratized over time, and perfumes are meant to represent the brands’ version of “accessibility”). And to many, this means people who presumably made their money by exploiting the labor of others, or inherited it from forefathers who exploited the labor of others, or stole land or pillaged resources.
It’s a short leap from that to assumptions of cultural appropriation.
And fashion itself feeds this trajectory when it produces imagery that seems to perpetuate some of our cheesiest cultural clichés. Mr. Depp wandering on the mesa while strumming a guitar like some highly styled ersatz Jack Kerouac is not exactly original, so why should a viewer assume there is more nuance in the Native American dance?
If that is the starting point, then simply consulting an interest group or using an actor seems like nothing more than a Band-Aid over a bigger wound that was inflicted long ago. But for a brand to see that point would require a recalibration of the way it sees its own creative history — no easy change.
Which raises the question of whether the way to get brand executives there is to attack.
A full retreat may make for a safe campaign. But it doesn’t make for deeper understanding on anyone’s part, and it doesn’t encourage any kind of cross-cultural fertilization or civil debate. When you get mocked for claiming you tried, why try at all? And if you don’t try at all, where does that leave us? Endlessly plowing the same New Look furrow, shouting into the echo chamber.
Ultimately, brands of all kinds may learn to lead with the process, rather than the finished product; to credit upfront the communities that inspired them as collaborators, just like the celebrities, artists and designers they work with, so everyone profits.
Fashion is good at that, after all. Should it really be such a leap? It just requires a different, more deliberate way of thinking about the creative melting pot, and a slightly different kind of accounting.
On all our parts.
1.SILHOUETTE & DESIGN
*Deep ocen blue
5.CREATIVE “JARGON” (the language, especially the vocabulary peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group: fashion jargon. )