In the latest controversy over cultural appropriation in fashion, French luxury fashion company Christian Dior has pulled an advertisement for a new perfume after fierce backlash.
In a tweet, the company paired an image of a Native American dancing on a Western bluff as the sun set behind him with text that read: “An authentic journey deep into the Native American soul in a sacred, founding and secular territory,” it said. “More to come.”
The perfume’s name? Sauvage, or savage in English, a racial stereotype with a long history of use against Native Americans, including in advertisements.
The ad touched off a quick reaction on social media, with many accusing the company of deploying an insensitive depiction of Native Americans to sell its wares. The description for the perfume, a classic Dior fragrance that has been remade, says it exudes “warm oriental tones and wild beauty that comes to life on the skin.”
“The fragrance of a new frontier: an interpretation with a rich, heady trail that celebrates the magic of wide-open spaces.”
The company pulled the ad from Twitter after wide backlash.
“It’s an arrogant appropriation of imagery that is unimaginatively executed,” Hanay Geiogamah, a UCLA professor, playwright and historian who is a member of the Kiowa tribe, told The Washington Post. “What offends me is that they so casually appropriate imagery like that and blend it together for their own purposes.”
“That’s more insulting than anything else,” he said. “This calls attention to the ongoing reality that the ad industry nationally and internationally still thinks they can appropriate American Indian imagery when they see fit. Here they’re doing it in a very high-gloss way, but it misses the mark completely.”
The perfume was also featured in a minute-long advertisement on YouTube featuring the actor Johnny Depp playing guitar and the dancer, as well as a three-minute video explaining the creation of the ad campaign.
“This particular short-film is truly a love letter," Depp says in that video. “It’s almost as if you can hear the land. There’s something there that speaks to you.”
Those videos, too, were taken down by the company by the end of the day Friday.
Hanley Frost, 59, a cultural education coordinator of the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado, blessed the land for the film crew and was filmed in a traditional outfit for one of the videos.
He said his cousin, an art school graduate, had recommended him for the production after a friend who works in the film business had said a Native American was needed to say a blessing before a film shoot.
He drove out to the scrubland in Moab, about a three-hour drive from his home in Ignacio, Colo., to bless the area for the crew, unaware at first of any of the details about the production. He found out mid-shoot that it was for the Christian Dior campaign featuring Depp. He also donned a formal outfit he wears for blessings and was filmed by the crew.
And he came back another day to teach the crew a bit about the history of his ancestors in the area. He said he was happy to share the history of his people and bless the land before the shoot, saying they eventually asked him what he wanted to be paid for the work. He asked for $1,000, he said.
He said that neither the name of the perfume nor the use of Native Americans in the campaign bothered him.
“To me, you just have to understand that these incidents that happen and remarks, it’s going to go on. It’s never going to go away. No matter how much people complain about it,” he said, noting sports teams such as the Washington Redskins that have used Native American imagery. “I know some native tribes, they say that’s what they called us, to educate the natives, but you know, that’s back in the past.”
For the ad, Dior worked with Americans for Indian Opportunity, a Native American advocacy organization whose president adopted Depp, who has long said he has Native American heritage, into her family around the time he played the Native American character Tonto in Disney’s remake of “The Lone Ranger.” (The portrayal was controversial.) A tribal chairman, John Wauqua, certified Depp as an honorary citizen of the Comanche Nation, but his affiliation and ethnic claims have been heavily criticized by Native American scholars such as Geiogamah.
“He’s not Native American,” Geiogamah said.
Laura Harris, the AIO’s executive director, told The Post that her organization was proud of its work with Dior.
“The goals of Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) for providing consultations on media productions are to ensure inclusion of paid Native staff, artists, actors, writers etc., to educate the production teams on Native American contemporary realities and to create allies for Indigenous peoples,” she wrote to The Post. “AIO does not speak for all Native Americans. We are proud to have successfully achieved our goals of education and inclusion for this project with Parfums Christian Dior.”
Concerns about cultural appropriation are front and center in the world of fashion, where the drive to push the envelope and elevate personal style through edgy or exotic themes has led to numerous controversies over the years. These include: white models wearing turbans for Gucci, a fashion shoot for Vogue where model Karlie Kloss dressed as a geisha, and designer Marc Jacobs dressing models in dreadlocks for a fashion week show in 2016.
Dior has been at the center of some of these controversies, including one involving a 2012 line of clothing that was heavily influenced by Native American culture.
The fashion house’s head designer, John Galliano, was fired in 2011 for making anti-Semitic and racist remarks, some of which were caught on video.
Adrienne Keene, a Native American writer, podcast host and professor, said it was a false dichotomy for Native Americans to choose between poor representations in media or no representation.
“The fact that ‘Sauvage’ is on some ‘we are the land’ BS is not surprising, but as always I find it deeply disturbing when brands force Native people to make the choice between stereotypes and misrepresentation, or utter invisibility,” she wrote on Twitter. “It feels like they tried to do it ‘right’ and involved some great people — but it’s still an ad for a notoriously racist company and a product called ‘Savage’.”
In a statement, Dior touted its work with AIO.
“The Parfums Christian Dior project is a part of AIO’s Advance Indigeneity Campaign to change the misperceptions about Native Americans, to share accurate American history, to build awareness about Native Americans as contemporary peoples and to promote Indigenous worldviews,” Dior said.