Fashion Line Refuses to Reveal Aboriginal Artist Behind Newest Collection
Sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy—brainchildren of the high-end designer fashion line Rodarte—have backed off from the claim that their Fall 2012 line, which is full of intricate dot and handprint patterns aesthetically tethered to the rugged Australian outback, came “out of nowhere.”
The comments came after Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian lawyer, accused the designers of culture mining without proper attribution.
Laura Mulleavy explained that she and her sister, having never visited Australia, relied purely on research for the newest collection in their successful line.
“We’d done so much research and looked at photo books of different eras,” she said. “But we kept coming back to the idea of Australia.”
Davis, the head of the University of New South Wales’ Indigenous Law Centre and an expert member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said she doesn’t believe that the prints “came out of nowhere,” calling the designers’ comments “offensive.” She said:
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 song lines, story, life and very essence, with responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to land and kin.
Davis referred the matter to the National Congress of Australia’s First People earlier this month.
Rodarte released the following statement only after Davis went on record criticizing the collection:
We deeply respect and admire the work of other artists. Through the appropriate channels, we licensed the Aboriginal artwork that influenced prints in our collection. As a result, the artists will share in proceeds of the pieces inspired by their work.
Rodarte’s “respect” for fellow artists fell short of recognizing the licensed “artists” by name, but the Aboriginal Art News ascertained that the prints are the work of only one (deceased) Aboriginal artist: Benny Tjangala.
By attributing their inspiration for the entire collection to the artwork of many “artists” instead of just Tjangala—whose work was, in fact, licensed for the 2012 Rodarte line but remains un-credited and unnamed—only worsens their efforts to right a wrong.
Davis is unconvinced of Rodarte’s sincerity and still takes issue with the Mulleavys’ because, until the release of their statement, “they were on the public record as stating that their collection came out of nowhere.” Davis continued:
There have been many successful collaborations between designers and Aboriginal artists that have provided a public profile and financial benefit to Aboriginal artists for use of their work. We look forward to seeing the appropriate recognition of this artist and region when this particular Rodarte collection is pictured. Such a joint effort adds to the cultural value of the collection and provides a chance for relationship building and skills transfer.
The Aboriginal Artists' Agency that licensed the print thinks the license is a good—and harmless—thing, saying:
The widow of artist Benny Tjangala will see this use of his artworks quite differently to the professor. She will appreciate the royalty flow over the next 12 months! And these 'frocks' follow an art series by the Mulleavy sisters based on Van Gogh, and they cost $3,000 apparently—so there won't be many on the streets. It is a small independent family business based in Pasadena.
How the agency confused Rodarte, the go-to for fashionistas that designed the costumes for Black Swan, for a “small independent family business” with no real reach is disconcerting but perhaps not shocking if you recall their trick of turning one artist into “artists.”
Davis’s point, that none of this would have been revealed if not for her criticism, is valid: The Mulleavys were seemingly content to allow their audience to think that the print design was their own.
“We know that these particular expressions, the rock art and dot paintings, are part of a religious Aboriginal system of knowledge and that there are cultural responsibilities for the protection and use of those images as well as custodial obligations,” Davis said.
This isn’t the first time the Mulleavys have faced criticism for their cultural insensitivity.
Rodarte’s Fall 2010 line was inspired by maquiladora workers—typically young,low-wage, female factoryworkers who suffer deplorable conditions while living in Juárez, Mexico, an infamous hotbed for drug-trafficking, murder, and kidnapping.The violence against women in Juárez is horrifyingly high; CNN reports that “in a four-day period, 41 people were murdered, while over the past decade, 450 women were killed and 3,000 went missing.” Many believe the femicides in Juárez are related to drug and sex trafficking.
Essentially, the Mulleavys drew inspiration from the idea of Mexican women getting dressed in the dark in a sleepwalking state for their fashion line.
To eliminate any doubt as to the inspiration for the offensive collection, Rodarte collaborated with the cosmetic company MAC to release a cosmetics collection to accompany the clothing line. The makeup came in shades called “factory,” “Juarez,” “Ghost town,” “del Norte,” and “quinceañera.” And the models in the Rodarte runway show looked ghostly, while their makeup looked like grim palettes of blood.
Both MAC and Rodarte issued statements of apology after the makeup line received harsh criticism.
MAC then promised to donate portions of its proceeds from the makeup to people in Juarez and eventually pulled the entire line. And the Mulleavys insisted, at the time, that they were “truly saddened about injustice in Juarez and it is a very important issue to us. The M·A·C collaboration was intended as a celebration of the beauty of the landscape and people in the areas that we traveled.”
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.