Mohawk Designer Marlana Thompson Discusses the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
The recent controversy over the use of a feather headdress as an accessory during the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show continues to rankle many Natives -- some of whom decided to stop buying the company's wares. And pop group No Doubt's racially-insensitive video for the song "Looking Hot," although quickly removed from YouTube, nonetheless alienated many Native fans. ICTMN recently discussed the issue with native fashion designer Marlana Thompson. Thompson is Wolf Clan from the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation territory of Akwesasne, located on the St. Lawrence River between the U.S. and Canada, and lives in Squamish, B.C. with her companion Wayne Gausedis Baker. A mother of two daughters, she is the owner and designer of at Okwaho Creations, maker of custom beadwork, traditional and contemptory clothing, which can be seen online at marlanathompson.com.
I have a few opinions. The thought that sticks with me most is that, in this day and age, could Victoria's Secret and No Doubt not find Native models or actors? Does Victoria not have internet access? Native models and reps can be found all over the internet. So, then I was left with a rather knee-jerk reaction. What tribe is Karlie Kloss suppose to be portraying -- the wannabe tribe? Was this possibly an attempted slap in the face to her ex-boyfriend, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford who happens to be of Cherokee decent?
What is your professional opinion?
Ok, let’s put the personal motivations aside, assume that was not the case. The clothing choice projected a very poorly done satire.
She’s wearing all Southwest silver and turquiose jewelry and a Plains-Indian-style, made-in-Taiwan turkey-feather headdress, with the obvious made-in-Taiwan beadwork. This in my opinion degrades and undervalues real beadwork handmade by real First Nations artists. And the clothing -- the bikini portion of the models outfit -- a cheetah-print bottom and bra covered in ultra suede? Since when were cheetahs indigenous to North America? Wait, most mainstream Americans don’t know what "indigenous" means. If they did, most people would know that first Nations people are indigenous to North America, and furthermore we are not all related, nor from the same tribe, we all don’t have the same language and we do not live in teepees and we all don’t have casinos.
How would you tackle the task of designing a Native themes fashion show?
As an FBI -- Full Blooded Indian -- designer who has done many fashion shows, I would personally never allow any made-in-Taiwan pieces on my runway under any circumstances, and would never dress up a non-native model in a Native “Thanksgiving”-inspired outfit. (I'm being polite to the creative mind at Victoria's Secret who thought up this "inspirational" piece.) I think if the style is to reflect a Native theme, then why not, when there are so many beautiful Native models readily available, hire Native models?! And hire Native designers to assist in the production? We are just as professional in our job as anyone else.
As a Mohawk designer, I try to use pieces that I have created and that are part of my Mohawk culture. Don’t get me wrong, I have made replica garments for clients in the past -- but I have made for damn sure the product I put forth is close to accurate for that tribe, right down to the style, fabrics, and design elements on the garment.
What do you think about the idea that America's Thanksgiving holiday was part of the motivation for this display?
America's first Thanksgiving is a major part of American history, where the first natives who made contact with the Europeans who were lost, sick and starving, were helped and fed by natives. But what is taught in school in American history fails to emphasize that the difference between the Plains Indian tribes, who wore headdresses, and the Southwestern tribes, who make the silver and turquoise jewlry. They totally excluded the reality that it was an East Coast people who made contact with the Pilgims. And by the way, the Pilgims were not first to those shores. Condoning this outfit even as a Halloween get up is, for Natives, a joke. And, therefore it makes Native peoples look like a joke.
Has this episode had any lasting effect on you?
Victoria's Secret is a major brand name, and the only brand whose undergarments I liked. But they just lost a "valued" customer. I cut up my platinum VIP Angels credit card and closed my account. Because not only am I a first Nations woman, I am a mother to two beautiful daughters, and what kind of example would I be setting for them if I condoned the actions of this worldwide company? As a native mother to two impressionable daughters, I have a duty to instill morals and values that do not compromise our traditional teachings or hinder our culture in any way. Those are the parameters of my work. I am glad to see, thanks to all this negative media attention Victoria's Secret has brought upon itself, more people have become aware that such poorly thought-out details of design can have an impact on the image of Native people. And I hope the reaction to the event informs key people in the fashion industry and reminds them of the many of the contributions first Nations and Native American tribes have made over history, and during today’s ever changing times.