Controversy is Jeremy Scott’s thing; you may remember Co.Design’s coverage of his Adidas shackle sneakers, which braced wearer’s ankles with chains. "In retrospect," wrote Mark Wilson, "they weren’t such a fantastic idea." Last month, Scott unveiled his 2013 Adidas Originals collection, and while it’s not all easy punchlines about race and ethnicity, many critics are up in arms about several garments that borrow from Pacific Northwest Native American traditions.
Scott’s thing is parroting genres and subgenres—which usually results in some pretty awesome hybrid garments. Take a peek at the lookbook and see how many distinct cultural sects you can count. I got to five, at least. Scott gives nods to late '70s British skinheads, '80s urban streetwear, and '90s raver culture, to name just a few.
The 2013 collection stumbles into some problematic territory when it comes to a series of tracksuits, shoes, and dresses decorated with cartoon renderings of Pacific Northwest Native American carvings—what some bloggers are calling "totem pole print." Totems originated as a way for some First Nation groups along the Pacific coast to honor their ancestors, describe legends, and sometimes, memorialize the dead. Scott’s simplified the symbology and tacked them onto dresses, tracksuits, and sneakers.
Curious what those in the Native community would think, I reached out to Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa who is a professor of Native American art, fashion, and design. As it turns out, she’d already seen the designs and written a post about them. "Misappropriations like this one are bad, unethical, and in some cases illegal," she told me. "Bizarre, garish, unpleasant and disgusting were several terms used to describe this outfit by people in the Native American community. Several individuals noticed that his inspiration was unoriginal, and that his take on Northwest Coast formline was ignorant, disrespectful and badly construed (in other words, Scott needs to work on his ovoids and u-forms)."
More than that, Metcalfe explains, they devalue the meaning and quality of the original source material. "When companies like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, or Adidas put out tacky images like this, they perpetuate the idea that Native American people have no sense of ownership or artistic legacy when it comes to our art, and anyone can steal it, tack their name on it, and make a buck—all the while putting forward the idea that our art is ugly and cheap," she says.
After mulling over these images for a bit, I wondered if there’s a "right" way to do this. Metcalfe thinks so—after all, she’s built a business mindfully promoting Native designers through her blog and online shop, Beyond Buckskin. For the prolific and often very funny Scott, it seems like a missed opportunity: Why not make this a joint effort with the First Nation artists? I’m willing to bet that the fruits of that collaboration would’ve been super interesting. Instead, we get a cartoon version of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. Even divorced from its historical underpinnings, it’s just sort of. . .lazy.
Whether you agree with critics or not, it seems that Adidas wants to keep these from American eyes—these pieces won’t be available in the United States. Check out the full collection and judge for yourself here.