• Thu, Sep 20 2012

Paul Frank Handles Native American Appropriation Scandal In Surprisingly Sensitive Manner

Yesterday’s link round-up pointed me to a story about Paul Frank’s tasteless appropriation of Native American imagery for the theme of their fashion week party. People were pissed, you see, because Paul Frank’s “dream catchin’ pow wow” exemplified the gross way some white people think it’s okay to take freely from their stereotypical idea of “Native American culture” for a laugh. Adrienne K at Native Appropriations felt hurt by this, and wrote Paul Frank a thoughtful letter about it which you can read here. (You should; she makes some really good points.)

This elicited the usual, generic, “sorry you were offended” response that’s become the hallmark of companies like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters:

Paul Frank celebrates diversity and is inspired by many rich cultures from around the world. The theme of our Fashion’s Night Out event was in no way meant to disrespect the Native American culture, however due to some comments we have received we are removing all photos from the event and would like to formally and sincerely apologize. Thank you everyone for your feedback and support.

Now normally, that would be that. But a few days later, Adrienne got a much more thoughtful response from the company:

Dear Adrienne K,

My name is Elie Dekel and I am President of Paul Frank Industries LLC. I am writing to see if you would be willing to speak with me regarding the recent Paul Frank event. While we have not yet received your letter [AK note: I only had emailed it to the PR company], we have seen the copy online and would like to address your concerns directly. This is something we take very seriously, and since the event, we have begun to take numerous steps to address this regrettable and unfortunate situation. I’d like to talk with you so I can update you on what we’re doing as well as hear more from you, so we learn from this mistake. If you would be interested in speaking with me, please let me know how best to reach you and when you might be available.

Sincerely,

Elie Dekel

Adrienne agreed to meet with them, at which point they told her all the good steps they were taking to rectify their ginormous blunder:

-They have already removed all of the Native inspired designs from their digital/online imprint

-The company works off a “Style Guide” that includes all of the digital art for the company, and then separate manufacturing companies license those images and turn them into products. Elie and his staff have gone through the style guide, even into the archives, and removed all of the Native imagery, meaning no future products will be produced with these images.

-They have sent (or it will be sent today) a letter to all of their manufacturers and partners saying none of this artwork is authorized for use and it has been removed from their business

-Elie has invited Jessica and I to collaborate with him on a panel about the use of Native imagery in the industry to be held at the International Licensing Merchandisers Association (LIMA) conference in June. This would reach a large and incredibly influential audience all in one place.

-Paul Frank Industries would like to collaborate with a Native artist to make designs, where the proceeds would be donated to a Native cause!

Wow, right? Rather than get defensive when they were clearly in the wrong, the company has actually taken steps to learn from the situation and do better in the future. They also hit upon an important point that often gets lost in this debate: just because it’s not okay to clumsily appropriate a stereotypical version of another culture, doesn’t mean you can’t admire that culture in a sincere way. Using an actual Native American artist to create authentic, non-stereotypical designs, and giving money to a Native American cause, is a great way to show you’re not just stealing randomly without giving anything back.

Let this stand as a model to other companies that get caught being culturally insensitive: this is how you fix it. Not by saying “sorry you got mad,” and definitely not by hiring a legal team to defend your shitty “Navajo panties.” Admit you were wrong, then try to do better. Pretty simple, really.

(Via Native Appropriations)

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