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Feature: Culture Shock: Chanel plays ‘Cowboys and Indians’

Chanel Headdresses as part of Paris-Dallas Métiers d'Art Collection

Chanel Headdresses as part of Chanel Pre-Fall 2014 Paris-Dallas Métiers d’Art Collection courtesy of Elle.com



By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada


Karl Lagerfeld has been playing ‘cowboys and Indians.’


The patriarch of the House of Chanel presented his Pre-Fall 2014 Paris-Dallas Métiers d’Art collection in Dallas, Texas, last December, leaving the more lucid members of the fashion tribe clutching its Chanel pearls in culture shock.


Hubert Barrière, the artistic director of the Lesage atelier owned by Chanel, put it bluntly: “We will make a Chanel Indian.”


The Paris-Dallas collection was replete with Chanel’s trademark pearls and tweed, but also de rigueur, fashion writing steeped in colonialism describing Lagerfeld’s faux pas with effusive gusto: gold and silver war paint etched on the models faces, the “unforgettably beautiful wounds, an allusion to the forgotten persecution of Native Americans, perhaps?” Feather hair-pieces crisscrossed with bejeweled pistols and stamped with the Chanel logo which “speared the girls’ hair with quills from the storied feather house of Lemarié.”  And the pièce de résistance: a sweeping bridal goose-feather headdress worn by French model Caroline de Maigret who “made a dramatic bride, her proud cheekbones reflecting her Native American grandmother’s genes.”


Genocide, so chic!  Pillaging the sacred meaning of the eagle feather from a disappearing people, un must!  Stereotypes, so au courant!


Chanel issued a faux-pology within 24 hours of the Paris-Dallas show, but only after The Daily Mail, ELLE Magazine, and Fashionista raised their impeccably plucked eyebrows at the headdress: “Native Americans are an integral part of Texas’s rich history and culture and the feather headdress, a symbol of strength and bravery, is one of the most visually stunning examples of the creativity and craftsmanship they possessed.”


And the lynchpin: “We deeply apologize if it has been misinterpreted or if it is seen as offensive as it was really meant as a tribute to the beauty of craftmanship.”


If it has been misinterpreted.  Sorry you didn’t get it. *Bored yawn*


But for Native American and First Nations, the message was quite clear: heritage is for sale.  The sacred eagle feather, no more than a trendy appliqué, and stereotype, a go-to source of inspiration.


And to Native designers, artisans, and tastemakers, it wasn’t just a racist collection: it was unimaginative art.


A real modern headdress on Lakota Chief Arvol Lookinghorse

A real modern headdress on Lakota Chief Arvol Lookinghorse courtesy of The Examiner


“Karl Lagerfeld hasn’t had an original creative idea since the ’80s,” Jessica Metcalfe tells Ramp1885.  A member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa community, Metcalfe curates Beyond Buckskin, an online boutique that profiles First Nations and Native American artists.


“Even with this show he’s just rehashing Ralph Lauren and (Jean-Paul) Gaultier and playing the ‘trendy headdress’ card, says Metcalfe.  “I give him a huge double fail.”


“He was being completely uncreative,” says Cree-Chippewa-Metis Young Native designer Angela de Montigny.  “Lagerfeld is being literal by using old stereotypical images and items in the wrong way.  He goes back to the cowboys and Indians thing.”


Lagerfeld explaining to The New York Times that his collection had more to do with the idea of Texas, “the West of the Mexican border in the time of the Civil War, a more romantic Texas fantasy.”


He bragged that he had not done any special research: “I have so many images already. I have to research in my brain.”


Was Lagerfeld absolving himself of any controversy?  Of threats of boycott and angry fashionistas à la Victoria’s Secret and Urban Outfitters?  Lagerfeld was outed in an interview by an effusive Hubert Barrière of the Lesage atelier, who directly contradicted the Chanel patriarch.  Barrière shared inspiration boards, going into great detail about researching patterns, looks, and overall inspiration, even saying, “I am told that it is a sort of tribute to the Native American tribe of Karankawas.”


Inspiration boards as shown by Hubert Barrière

Inspiration boards as shown by Hubert Barrière courtesy of unelibanaiseparis.com


A tribute with no research, but also SO much research.


And it was the fallacy of a tribute to Native American culture and craftsmanship that irked de Montigny. “They are taking ownership of that which is ours,” she says. “This really horrified me: that they stamped the two CCs on the feather.”


“He is in a position to do that, he’s in a position to disregard what we say and still do whatever he wants,” says Metcalfe.  “And that’s what we’re talking about here.  He made those decisions and he’s in that position of power to misrepresent us and say: I don’t care.”


To Metcalfe and de Montigny, Lagerfeld missed the opportunity to make a significant contribution bridging fashion communities.


“He could have done a huge homage to us.  But he didn’t,” says de Montigny.  “What you do, is you do it authentically.  And then it has spirit in it, it has power.  People can feel that, because it comes from those cultures and the people.”


De Montigny, who lives in Six Nations territory, explains that Lagerfeld even ignored storytelling and symbolism of the single brave feathers in the models’ hair: “That’s how different tribes were able to recognize each other.  The Iroquois, the Seneca, the Mohawk – their feathers represent what nation they’re from.  Some of them have a single feather, some would have three feathers standing up, one nation would have a feather standing straight up, another one on its side – that means who they are.”


Makeup depicting war paint at Chanel Paris-Dallas Pre-Fall 2014 Collection

Makeup depicting war paint at Chanel Paris-Dallas Pre-Fall 2014 Collection courtesy of marieclaire.com


“There are so many different ways that he could have done something that was interesting and innovative and you could still tell where the inspiration came from,” says de Montigny.


To Metcalfe, the idea of cowboys and Indians needs to be dropped altogether.  “Dig deep to find something specific for your inspiration point,” she argues.  “I would have looked specifically at the act of counting coup.  Draw your story from that.  That’s where you’re really going to dig in and get some cool stuff.”


To be sure, the Chanel Paris-Dallas collection was not created in a vacuum of artistic wonder and genius – it is a collection whose genesis comes from a place of historical wrongs, genocide, land thefts, and residential schools that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child.


It was designed in a world that permits shameless repurposing of Navajo heritage for trendy panties and alcohol flasks at Urban Outfitters.  Of sacred Plains feather headdresses from H&M to be worn in trendy nightclubs and summer music festivals.  It was birthed in a world where wearing Native regalia without permission was illegal until 1951; in a society where the headdress has been weaponized to intimidate and silence activists; in a time and place where young First Nations women are berated for wearing political couture based on historical land treaties, and where a young Native man is denied his right to quite literally put an eagle feather in his graduation cap.


Iroquois Headdresses

Shakowi Iroquois Headdresses courtesy of NewYorkTraveler.net


The Chanel Paris-Dallas collection was designed in a world where literal couture is praised as creative and visionary, while designers like de Montigny and artists represented by Beyond Buckskin have to work harder to break into a market that views their heritage with suspicion, an industry that thinks they might be too literal, the quality of their threads suspect and shoddy.


At the heart of the issue lies a dual narrative solidly rooted in the idea that communities can be “mined for the latest hip accessories that are lauded on white bodies while suspect on ours.”  As Ayesha Siddiqi explains it in her deconstruction “ghetto fabulous” style, cultural appropriation is “a valuation of whiteness above us. Above our history, dignity, and humanity.”


And when a community is mined and pillaged, when such theft is perpetrated on culture, tradition, and the sacred, the simple act of putting a headdress on a pretty feather fashion runway becomes an act of colonialism.


“For the past 500 plus years, Indigenous cultures have been tapped for consumption,” says Metcalfe.  “It was: what can we extract from the New World and bring back here? So we’ve always been something to be consumed.”


“We’re saying no, stop consuming me.”



Read the full transcript of Ramp1885’s interview with Jessica Metcalfe as shares the story of how Lakota Chief Sitting Bull’s feather headdress was created.



*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

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2 Responses to Feature: Culture Shock: Chanel plays ‘Cowboys and Indians’

  1. […] ‘style’ things are in vogue, as evidenced by Victoria’s Secret Fall 2012 show and Chanel’s Pre Fall 2014 lineup. There is an abundance of tipis to adorn the bedrooms of little White children, headdresses for the […]

  2. Tsionatiio Laughing says:

    This is discusting and degrating to all natives. Such a disgrace!

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