Urban Outfitters may have been the recipient of a cease-and-desist letter from the Navajo Nation, which, as the holder of several trademarks on the word "Navajo," is seeking to stop the company from using "Navajo" in its product names and descriptions, but the current vogue for "Navajo"-inspired (and Native American-inspired in general) clothing, jewelry and accessories is hardly limited to one company. From the beautiful to the tacky to the downright disturbing, here's a survey of fashion's latest problematic ethnic "trend."
Though designers like Ralph Lauren have practically made careers out of mining the culture of the Southwest for inspiration, and various kinds of feathered accessories have been in style for several seasons, and leather moccasins have been a hipster staple since the mid-2000s, the resurgence of Southwestern-style prints and woven items right now can perhaps most directly be traced to Proenza Schouler's Fall-Winter 2011 collection. The highly influential designers were praised for this collection — New York Times critic Cathy Horyn called it perhaps New York's best show — and mass-market retailers such as Urban Outfitters take their cues from high fashion. Proenza Schouler co-founder Lazaro Hernandez had this to say about the inspiration for the collection when he testified before Congress about copyright protection for fashion designers earlier this year:
Work on our fall collection took place in the American West. We spent time in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico exploring Native American history and their crafts and were inspired by Navajo textiles. When you look at our designs you won't see knockoffs of Navajo crafts. Instead you will see that we incorporated their feel and some of their elements to create our own originals.
Whether or not you find Hernandez' reasoning compelling — and I personally don't see "knockoffs of Navajo crafts" when I look at these clothes — there are some things to keep in mind. For one thing, Proenza Schouler didn't call this collection "Navajo." Although their textile designs are obviously inspired by Navajo blankets, the designers refer to the garments they made as "jacquard," which is a generic technical term for the kind of weaving they did, thus avoiding claiming any affiliation with the actual Navajo Nation or people. Calling a product by a specific Native American tribal name when it is not, in fact, made by a member of that tribe or otherwise authorized by the tribe is illegal in the U.S. For another thing, at their fall show, Proenza Schouler accorded their coveted opening look to model Tara Gill, who is of (Canadian) First Nations descent. That isn't to say that the indigenous peoples of North America are interchangeable, but — given there are not, to my knowledge, any working models of Navajo descent — it was at least a casting decision that showed the designers were thinking about the complexities of race and culture.
The same season, Gwen Stefani showed several Southwestern-style outfits, including this "Navajo Intarsia Tunic Sweater." It's $330.
A search on the term "Navajo" at Shopbop.com turns up 20 results, including this $187 "Navajo Ring" by the designer Pamela Love. Love also sells a $425 "Navajo Breastplate" necklace, and a $575 "Navajo Cuff."
Yigal Azrouël offers for sale this striped sweater, which for some reason is named the "Navajo Cropped Sweater." Yours for $580.
A search on "Navajo" at Etsy returns 2,466 items; even accounting for Navajo-made vintage and antique things, and contemporary items made by Navajo people and offered for sale, that's an awful lot. The search string "Native American" returns more than 19,000 results. This "Native American Breast Plate Inspired Leather Necklace" is listed for $75; it's very much in the style of the breastplates that Plains Indians made in the 19th Century. If the seller is Native American herself, she doesn't say so. Some members of the Blackfeet tribe sell breastplates that they have made online here.
Neiman Marcus offers this "Navajo-Print Tie Cardigan" for $517. Its design obviously owes a debt to Navajo rugs.
And of this "Navajo-print" wool and cashmere dress, the Arizona Republic points out that it "looks exactly like the Navajo blanket on display in the Heard Museum (hand-loomed in 1880, just so you know)."
If you thought that Urban Outfitters' "Navajo Flask" was hilarious and awesome, rather than insensitive given the prevalence of alcohol abuse on reservations, well, here's a "Hand Tooled Leather Native American Heartline Bear Flask" on Etsy for $55. In case you've ever wanted a flask with a bear's digestive tract marked on it in red.
The seller of this "Black foot Native American Indian Mask" explains how big it is, what it's made of, and suggests that it would make a nice "focal point in a room." For people who can't afford a taxidermied moose, have this human head instead!
And, of course, there's your classic feathered headdress. "The perfect accessory for the festival season," writes the seller, "weather [sic] if [sic] for fancy dress or serious cowboys and Indian games, this is the headdress for you."