Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavik November 04, 2013 - 12:17 pm

Aboriginal-inspired fashion brand gets hostile reaction

"I am a fashionista who appreciates First Nations culture"

SARAH ROGERS
This Inukt key chain ornament retails for $45. (IMAGE COURTESY OF INUKT.COM)
This Inukt key chain ornament retails for $45. (IMAGE COURTESY OF INUKT.COM)
The image on this Inukt t-shirt depicts Chief Joseph, a Nez Perce band leader - although it does not identify who the man is. (PHOTO COURTESY OF INUKT.COM)
The image on this Inukt t-shirt depicts Chief Joseph, a Nez Perce band leader - although it does not identify who the man is. (PHOTO COURTESY OF INUKT.COM)

A Montreal-based fashion designer says she is “puzzled” by the backlash against her brand Inukt — a newly-launched clothing and furniture line that depicts First Nations design and images.

After working in Paris for two decades, Inukt’s art director, Nathlie Benarroch recently returned to Canada, where some have accused her of misappropriating Aboriginal culture.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts removed the Inukt line from its on-site boutique Oct. 30 after complaints from the Aboriginal community that the line was offensive.

In an opinion piece published in the Montreal Gazette over the weekend, Benarroch defended her “simple fashion brand.”

“I have worked hard to ensure that Inukt’s first collection was put together with help from aboriginal communities here in Quebec,” Benarroch wrote.

“As a result, I could never have predicted, as a humble fashionista or style hunter, that some First Nations communities would protest against our line,” she said.  “I had never imagined that in order for me to be allowed to be inspired by First Nations culture, I had to be a descendant of the First Nations myself, which I am not.”

Benarroch argued that art and culture have historically borrowed from other cultures, regardless of the artist’s ancestry.

And Benarroch defended her right to be inspired, noting that freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Canadian constitution.

“The people who have been insulting me every day on Facebook should go visit Simons or Forever 21 and all those other podiums of the fashion world that are inspired more routinely than we realize by Hassidism, the military, punks, burkas and a host of other cultural cues,” she wrote. “That is the real world of fashion. That’s what some of my First Nations critics need to realize.”

But critics have accused the fashion brand of misrepresenting Aboriginal groups in Canada, by using an Inuit-themed name — Inukt — and borrowing heavily from First Nations design.

Items sold in-store are accompanied by signage that says “I am Inuk and my heart is free!”

A number of Inukt products, however, have west-coast images on them, along with the Anishinaabe language, creating what critics call a confusing blend of Aboriginal culture.

Some tee shirts and bags depict altered photos of First Nations leaders without identifying who they are, such as images of a fluorescent-feathered Hinmatóowyalahtq’it (Chief Joseph), leader of a band of Nez Perce in Northeastern Oregon.

Benarroch has now closed the Inukt Facebook page, saying she and the brand have been the target of hatred over the last week.

“The whole ordeal, for me, has been a growing experience and I will use it to revisit my line and my plans for a second collection,” Benarroch said.

“I cannot change the fact that I have no First Nations ancestry,” she said. “I am a fashionista who appreciates First Nations culture, its symbolisms and especially its people — and who looks forward to continued close cooperation with First Nations people in a mutually beneficial fashion.”

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