Over the past couple of days, I’ve been following the response to a truly idiotic move by fashion house Paul Frank. For Fashion’s Night Out, an annual shopping event, the company decided to host a party called “”Dream Catchin’ with Paul Frank,” where, according to blogger Adrienne K., who is Cherokee, attendees posed with tomahawks, bows and arrows, and feathered headbands. It’s a colossally insensitive move, and hardly a novel one, given that the appropriation of so-called “native” culture has been a big deal in fashion for a couple of cycles now.
Normally when a company or an individual does something this clueless, promoting justifiable frustration from the people they’ve appropriated and stereotyped, they make a statement and a donation, and the beat goes on. But according to Adrienne, Paul Frank reached out to her and other Native American bloggers for their feedback, and outlined a comprehensive approach to shut down the campaign the event was based on, and to educate other people in the industry about how Paul Frank went wrong, and they can, too:
The phone call went so much better than I could have even imagined. Elie was gracious, sincere, and kind from the beginning, and truly apologetic. He took full responsibility for the event, and said he wanted to make sure that this was something that never happened again, and wanted to learn more so he could educate his staff and colleagues. We talked about the history of representations of Native people in the US, and I even got into the issues of power and privilege at play–and the whole time, he actually listened, and understood. Such a refreshing experience.
I could go on and on about the call, but enough background, here are the incredible, amazing, mind-boggling action steps that the company has taken and has promised to take in the near future:
-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.
and the MOST exciting part:
-Paul Frank Industries would like to collaborate with a Native artist to make designs, where the proceeds would be donated to a Native cause!
I excerpt this at length because I think this kind of response is a model for the kinds of actions both companies and publications should take when they clown themselves this epically. Can you imagine what would happen if a fashion magazine—say, French Vogue—after publishing an editorial of a model in blackface, held a roundtable with bloggers of color, explained the editorial process that lead to the editorial being commissioned and run, and outlined the changes they’d made along the way to prevent themselves from publishing content that was both emotionally and editorially unworthy of their brand?
Organizations love to apologize without making process changes or explaining them. ABC News chief Brian Sherwood’s explanation that he’d rebuked Brian Ross after the latter speculated that Aurora shooter James Holmes was affiliated with the Tea Party, coupled with his evasions on which internal procedures lead to the information going on the air and what they’d changed, is a textbook example of this kind of approach to crisis management. It is embarrassing to reveal that, say, you don’t employ anyone who might have the perspective to point out to you that a “pow-wow” is not an okay thing to do, or that a news organization airs information it found on Google without verifying it. But cauterizing those wounds and explaining how you’ve worked backwards to make sure you don’t make the errors again is a short-term pain it’s worth enduring.