In looking Down Under for fashion inspiration, Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the sisters who design for Rodarte, have found themselves under fire: A U.N. expert on indigenous peoples’ issues has declared the line’s Aboriginal designs to be “offensive.”
Rodarte’s fall 2012 line was inspired by the rugged Australian outback — shearling coats, earthy reds and oranges, and patterns of dots and handprints that reference hand-painted Aboriginal art. The patterns, which reference indigenous mythology and creation stories, are highly spiritual.
“It is completely insensitive to Aboriginal art and spirituality and land and how they are inextricably linked,” Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian lawyer and an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) told Frockwriter. “The sisters admit they have never been to Australia, so they must have had ‘inspiration’ from books, images, web or Aboriginal art, including 60,000 year old rock art – a clan’s songlines, story, life and very essence, with responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to land and kin.”
It’s similar to last fall’s fracas over Urban Outfitters’ use of the word “Navajo” in describing a line of Native American print-inspired products, including panties and a flask. Last month, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for trademark infringement and for violating the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal to suggest that merchandise is made by American Indians when it is not.
But the Rodarte situation is different from the Urban Outfitters disaster in one big way: When Fashionista contacted Rodarte about the line, it was told that the label licensed the Aboriginal artwork that influences prints in the collection. “As a result, the artists will share in proceeds of the pieces inspired by their work,” the statement said. Aboriginal Art News reports that the artist is the late Benny Tjangala, from Alice Springs-based Papunya Tula Artists, and his widow will receive the royalties.
Urban Outfitters may not have learned its lesson — it offended Irish American groups with its St. Patrick’s Day shirts about binge drinking — but Nike has, after it apologized to the Irish for its “Black and Tan” shoes, which referenced not only the beer drink, but also a violent paramilitary group in the Irish revolution. For Rodarte, Urban Outfitters and every other brand out there, this is just another reminder that both sides (including Davis, who seems to have spoken too soon) need to do their research when it comes to cultural sensitivity.