There is a lot to be said about inspiration. It is the fire that starts in your belly and moves you forward, especially when you are a creative type and even more especially when creativity is your ways and means. Like, for example, a Fashion Designer. You can’t help where inspiration comes from and you can’t always help where it takes you. But sometimes, when inspiration strikes, you have to do your homework.
Now, I don’t usually like to get too involved with grand issues in the Suite because this is a fun place to hang my coat and, as it were, share those inspirations that move my hands to the keyboard. But this morning I was pretty disheartened by a show by Canadian designers Dan and Dean Caton’s Fall/Winter 2015 Dsquared2 collection, DSquaw.
That’s true, by the way, the name of it. Hashtags and everything. I’ll get to that.
The DSquared2 collection that they unveiled in Milan on Monday is, although beautiful in many ways, an act of theft and an embarrassment. It is a shameful insult to Canadian Fashion and to Aboriginal people and their art, culture, and history. It is a slap in the face to already marginalized First Nations’ women (especially in Canada), and it perpetuates racist treatment of First Nations’ people and their art.
Full disclosure: I’m a white girl from Alberta, living in Vancouver, working in Fashion for a local fashion design company (Chloe Angus Design) that prides itself on the work we do with First Nations’ artists. The Spirit Collection that we produce locally is a very cool collaboration project with exceptionally talented Haida and T’lingit artists that features their artwork that we apply to our fashion designs. Compensation and credit go back to each artist and we take a great deal of pride in what we do, the right way.
I am not a historian and I am not an expert. But I have learned so much about First Nations’ art, culture, history, and the disregard thereof working for a culturally responsible collaborator that this issue is a bit close to my heart. Because I see it all the time. So please allow me to elaborate.
The crux of it all is ignorance, in the large sense of the word.
People – Canadians, Americans, and now Italians, Parisians, the British, and everyone else who pays attention to Fashion Weeks – do not know that there is a problem because it has been systematically ignored. Hence, ignorance. Not all who are ignorant are guilty but those who fail to learn certainly are. Which brings me to my first point.
The first thing the Caton boys failed to do was educate themselves. They found their inspiration in Native art across many vast and unique Aboriginal groups – from the Inuit (not “Eskimo” as Fashion Editor Tim Blanks and many others have incorrectly labelled) to the Coast Salish, to the Navajo – clumped them together as “tribal” and called it a day. They did this without crediting one single member of any one of those First Nations. They just took it as “inspiration” and to hell with where it came from.
Sure, they probably looked at a whole bunch of images of Native culture across the ages and found it all very inspiring. Trust me, it is: Native beading, weaving techniques, sculpture, and art in general are truly beautiful, which is why the collection is gorgeous in many ways. But they failed, despite years – centuries – of systematic Colonial theft of all things Native, to do any digging beyond those images of beautiful, original, important, spiritual, valuable, lost, stolen art. As far as I know, no Aboriginal artists were consulted or collaborated with, and if they were, they were wholly uncredited in the show. Major fail. Systematic fail. Heartbreaking, but sadly, not surprising.
The second thing the boys failed to do was make the connection between the colonizers and the colonized.
Dsquared2’s description of the collection on their Facebook page included the following:
“The enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes.
The confident attitude of the British aristocracy.
In a captivating play on contrasts: an ode to America’s native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe.”
First of all, you don’t get to say “Indian.” First Nations’ people can but you can’t. Second of all, don’t say “tribes” either because you obviously don’t know what you are talking about. If you did, as a couple of rich white dudes doing the speaking, you would know that “Bands” or “Nations” is a more culturally appropriate term of the people you are ripping off, at least in Canada.
Thirdly, the “British Aristocracy” (as well as the French and Spanish) were the ones “civilizing” (murdering, converting, “assimilating”, etc.) First Nations’ people way back during colonization. It was thanks to them that this systematic racism got started. So don’t you think it might be best to reconsider your inspiration storyline to something a little less colonially offensive? Pairing “Old World” motifs alongside ripped off “tribal” designs is, while likely a well-intentioned fantasy of sartorial grandeur, thoroughly insulting and insensitive.
It was made worse (in my opinion) by Tim Blanks’ review on style.com, described as such:
“a place where, said Dean, a suitcase of clothes and jewels from Old Europe had fallen out of a plane over the icy tundra and been taken up by an Inuit tribe, who had incorporated the finery into their own tribal duds.” … “Corset dresses, virginal draped nightdresses, and hyper-tailored little jackets spoke of high-flown civilization, while a hooded fur parka, a poncho, and a fringed blanket skirt were life on the ground.”
Thus, for Tim Blanks and those readers/viewers whom Dan and Dean failed to educate, “Old Europe” represents “civilization” while “Inuit tribes” are the opposite.
This is the heart of the problem: if White “Old World” Europe didn’t start the trend of systematic decimation during colonization, this wouldn’t be an issue because there would be no history of cultural genocide. There would be no history of forced relocations and murders. There would be no history of taking children away from their families to be put in residential schools where they were sexually and physically assaulted, forced to speak English, and forced to be converted to the church. There would be no history of legally prohibiting their cultural practices including dance, language, and art. There would be no history of taking their art without asking and making money off it without credit or second thought. But they did. Systematically. And we did, as Canadians. And we still do.
The third and most cherry-on-top failure the boys are guilty of is the insane use of the word “Squaw” in the title (!) of their collection.
DSquaw?! Do you not have a marketing team or press agent? is there no one in charge of DSquared2’s Public Relations that might have thought “hmm…I don’t know the first thing about Native culture but maybe I should look up this word we are going to base our entire show on just to be sure”?
Without a hint of research into what the word means (a derogatory term referring to Native women) or a single ounce of respect to the unbelievable treatment and disregard of hundreds of Native women (Highway of Tears, anyone? Harper? The UN?), the boys just blasted it out to Europe and the rest of the world as the standard of ignorant, insensitive treatment for Native people in North America. And you know what? It is.
That is why this collection is an embarrassment. And I hope those boys learn to do their homework next time. I hope it inspires us all to take a second look at how we treat our First Nations’ neighbours, their art, their culture, and their history and to educate ourselves on why this kind of treatment is so hurtful and offensive. Because we keep fucking it up.