Powwow Party Flub Leads To Fashion Line When the design company Paul Frank threw a powwow themed party, a lot of people were offended. But rather than just issue an apology, the company teamed up with Native American designers for a new line. Guest host Celeste Headlee finds out more.

Powwow Party Flub Leads To Fashion Line

Powwow Party Flub Leads To Fashion Line

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When the design company Paul Frank threw a powwow themed party, a lot of people were offended. But rather than just issue an apology, the company teamed up with Native American designers for a new line. Guest host Celeste Headlee finds out more.


And now we turn to a very different kind of fashion/history story. Last year, clothing and accessories line Paul Frank hosted a powwow and dreamcatcher party that offended a lot of people, not just Native Americans. Bloggers like Adrienne Keene demanded an apology and the company obliged. But Paul Frank Industries didn't stop there. They decided to team up with Native designers to create a line that showcases art from the many Native American cultures.

That line launches today. And joining us to talk more about it is Elie Dekel. He's the president of Saban Brands, that's the parent company of Paul Frank Industries. And also with us, Adrienne Keene, she writes the popular blog "Native Appropriations" and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Welcome back to both of you.

ADRIENNE KEENE: Thanks so much for having me.

ELIE DEKEL: Thanks, Celeste. Great to be here.

HEADLEE: Adrienne, take us back to, kind of, the beginning of this story and the moment when you found out about this powwow-themed party. You wrote about it pretty strongly in your blog. What exactly in it was offensive?

KEENE: Well, it was back in September, and it was actually thanks to Jessica Metcalfe, who is another blogger who's worked with us really closely on this collaboration and definitely, we wouldn't be here without her. She got a Google alert for Native American and fashion and found the images from this party from Fashion's Night Out. And I think to us in the Native community, some of the things that stood out immediately were the kind of mishmash of a lot of different tribal cultures being put together under this one, sort of, blanket theme, of quote-unquote, Native American. And Julius, who's the mascot of Paul Frank, was in a headdress, kind of the stereotypical war bonnet.

And for the communities that wear the headdress, that's something that's extremely sacred and something that you have to earn. And so seeing images like that - having the headdress on a monkey, seeing people dress up and play Indian. There were tomahawks and some sort of some mock-scalpings and things like that. To me, it was just really hurtful, and kind of pointed to a lot of the misunderstandings about Native communities in our country.

HEADLEE: Well, Elie, you obviously were made aware of these reactions to it. How quickly did you and the rest of the company realize it was a mistake?

DEKEL: Well, it was fascinating. The power of social media works at light speed. And I have to say, within probably 12 hours...


DEKEL: ...Of the event itself, we were starting to see reaction bubble up on various social media platforms, and particularly led by Adrienne and Jessica's blogs. And it was alarming at first. This was - you know, Paul Frank is a joyful brand that appeals to all ages all around the world. And the furthest thing from our mind would be to do anything that would be perceived offensive or perhaps misappropriated. But it really came out of a sincere desire to tap into trends, and we were seeing fashion trends evolving where Native American style was coming to light and we, unfortunately, adapted in a way that was inappropriate.

And boy, when we saw the social media reaction, and particularly when we had a chance to speak with both Jessica and Adrienne, we understood much more clearly where we had gone wrong and realized that this was more than just a mistake, this was something that required and in our view was really deserving of a much more thorough discussion and a much more thorough education process for the licensing and the fashion industry.

HEADLEE: Well, Adrienne, then tell me about some of these initial conversations. I mean, it must've been a surprise to you that the company would actually reach out and talk to you personally and do more than the apology. But what do you think about the way in which this whole thing transpired, and what this means for, maybe times in the future when this sort of thing happens?

KEENE: It was amazing to open up my e-mail that day and see the e-mail directly from Elie. I've been doing this blog for three years now, I push back on companies all the time. This is a trend that really hasn't gone away since the beginning of the founding of the United States. So I push back a lot. I never had received any sort of response like we did from Paul Frank. And in that initial phone call, I was really nervous and I'm sure the company was nervous as well. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if I was going to have to be defensive. I didn't know if I was going to have to sort of fight for my position on this.

But from the beginning, everyone I've worked with has been so gracious and went above and beyond what I could have even imagined for a positive outcome from this. So it's been a long process, but it's really been something that's been incredible to see, and I really hope that this collaboration that we've developed can serve as a model for other companies, because there's a lot of arguments out there that I hear from companies that things like pulling products from the shelves or telling manufacturers to cease using a design or doing things that scale are just impossible. But this collaboration with Paul Frank has shown that all of those things are very possible if there's just the dedication from the company. So I'm hoping that this really can serve as a model for other companies that want to showcase these Native designs, but do it right.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about that collaboration then. Because the line launches today. And Elie, I wanted to talk to you about this team of Native designers that helped you. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about the line, what does it look like?

DEKEL: Well, it's - the team was really pulled together through, again, the ongoing collaboration of working with Adrienne and Jessica, who have a much greater insight into the creative and fashion community endemic to Native Americans. And so one of the things that was obvious to us in understanding the issues was that you can't say Native American and believe to include all of the different cultures and peoples and - that span this great nation. And so it was important for us, as we thought about doing this the right way, that we also tried to represent a cross-section of influences from different tribes and different nations within the Native American community.

And so working together, we identified four designers - Louie Gong who's a Nooksak heritage, Candace Halcro, Plains Cree/Metis Tribe, Dustin Martin, who is Navajo, and Autumn Dawn Gomez, who comes from the Comanche/Taos tribes. Each of them brings not only a unique artistic style, but they also operate in different mediums. One - and then lastly, they also represent a cross-section. And so together we've come together with a line of product that ranges from tote bags, pillowcases, and throw blankets to hand-beaded fashion eyewear. Fashion eyewear has always been a part of the Paul Frank business and now we have a created, inspired line. Dustin worked on some really powerful graphics for a t-shirt line. And we also have jewelry from Autumn, who also applied a very unique method, but also her heritage, her style, her artistic expression and doing so in a very positive integration of the Paul Frank brand, which I mentioned before, has a universal appeal and a very joyful appeal.

So it was important to us in trying to perhaps outdo the negatives that we had done before in this naive event that we threw. It was important for us to really try and amplify the issues in each aspect of this collaboration - the diversity, the multiple mediums, the different nations that are represented, and then allow that to flourish in its own right, and it's a symbolic week for us to release this collection now, because this week in New Mexico is the big SWAIA conference, which pulls together, I believe it's the largest gathering of Native Americans of the year in Santa Fe. And so to do all that, working with the community in an endemic and sincere and authentic fashion, has been an incredibly refreshing experience for us. And one that we hope will be looked at by others in the fashion design and licensing industries as a template, if you will, for how to approach working with different cultures, working with different sensibilities.

HEADLEE: That's Elie Dekel, president of Sabon Brands, the company that owns Paul Frank Industries. That line he's talking about launches today. He joined us from our studios at NPR West. And Adrienne Keene is the creator and blogger for "Native Appropriations." She joined us from Encinitas, California. Thank you both.

KEENE: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we'll talk more tomorrow.

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