Two of the strongest looks swaying down the runway this spring are rustic tribal and breezy safari. Both conjure images of beautiful, unique designs heavy in gold and earth tones, sometimes even venturing into the brightly colored, but both also run the risk of being entirely offensive. It's not just tacky offensive you have to think about this season, even if some of the fabric choices of the tribal prints at Target and other big-box stores range from cute to Dear Lord Why; it's the possibility of culturally offensive.
Tribal and safari, while ready to push fashion boundaries, shouldn't push boundaries of human decency. Inherent racism can and does sneak into marketing and fashion, whether it is willfully malicious or willfully ignorant. So here comes the tricky part: How can you stay on trend and rock the look without co-opting or insulting a culture that is not your own?
The corporate heads at Urban Outfitters clearly did not ask themselves these questions when naming their new patterns after the largest Native American tribe in the United States. In February, the Navajo Nation filed suit against the apparel company for trademark infringement and violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. According to the act, it is illegal for any product to "falsely suggest it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization." Urban Outfitters boasted a line of printed clothing and accessories under the name Navajo, and among those products was a flask.
Vogue Italia also crossed the line. Last year, the company came under fire for dubbing a pair of large gold hoop earrings, clearly African-inspired, "slave earrings." Supermodel Iman was among those who vocally derided Vogue Italia for its flat-out racism, which the company later blamed on a "mistranslation." The earrings themselves were lovely; the name was not.
Appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture are two very different things. The first step is being aware that something like a T-shirt silk-screened with a human skull wearing an Indian-feathered headdress is a gigantic flashing NO. Recognizing that an accessory (like a flask named after a Native American tribe) is racist means you are socially aware and culturally sensitive enough to set boundaries when it comes to your buying power. Racism is never edgy or fashionable, and there are ways to embrace the tribal and safari styles without succumbing to it.
To even pull off the look, one has to be smart. Brandee Dishner, manager of Fresh Boutique, advises easing small pieces into your wardrobe to achieve the look without going the costume route. Charlotte is a city that embraces all cultures, and elements of tribal and safari styles can be spotted on our streets.
"It's not out of the question that we'll see bold and fashion-forward people wearing it," Dishner says, adding that accessories like scarves or beaded necklaces would be the jumping-off point.
Fashion guru and former style editor at the Charlotte Observer Rachel Sutherland, who blogs at If the Shoe Fits (www.rachelsutherland.net/blog), agrees. "Starting with accessories is a great way to gauge your comfort and commitment without breaking the bank," she says. "Tribal elements add texture to a look. Incorporating wood accents (in belts, earrings as finishing details on bags or shoes) or other natural fibers like cork or straw can add depth without being cliché."
Cliché is the operative word. When an outfit leans to the cliché, it runs the risk of being insulting. For any new fashion, less is always more, and great fashion is about taking the right risks. Find your inspiration from the beauty of cultures that differ from your own and leave the ugliness of racism out of your wardrobe. Recognize that some fabrics and prints are timeless across the board and avoid the garish ones.
"Safari and tribal have been in Charlotte for some time now — there are elements of both trends that are timeless, making them classic staples," Sutherland says. "Animal print is at the top of the list. Artful incorporation of animal print — cheetah one season, python the next — is always chic. Head-to-toe zebra print? Not so much, unless you're trying to look like a member of LMFAO."
"Moderation is key," Sutherland continues, adding a final bit of advice to ponder when it comes time to deck out. "The highest fashion is referential, not offensive or patronizing."