Dior partnered with a Native American group for its controversial ad. But does it matter?

The brand in question.
The brand in question.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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On its face, it looks bad. In the ad Dior tweeted out today for its new fragrance, the camera pans around a dramatic scene of a Native American dancer in full dress on a cliff top—seemingly a textbook example of the sort of cultural appropriation for which fashion brands have been excoriated. To make matters worse, the clip cuts to a black frame with the name of the fragrance: Sauvage, a mere letter away from the epithet Europeans used for the indigenous peoples on the American continent.

The backlash online was almost immediate. “Using Indigenous people and our culture for your new perfume aesthetic and feeling the need to name it ‘Sauvage’ is a completely bad take. Do better @Dior,” one Twitter user who identifies herself as Diné wrote. It was among the milder takes. “SAUVAGE? Oh my god, Dior, what are you doing? Read the room, you colonialist clods,” another person tweeted.

Dior has since deleted the post, but here’s a screenshot:

A screenshot of Dior's tweet showing a Native American dancer.
Image: Screenshot from twitter.com/Dior

What makes the situation complicated is that Dior did try to read the room. The clip is a brief piece of a longer ad Dior created to promote the new parfum joining its Sauvage line. To make it, Dior worked with an advocacy organization for indigenous peoples called Americans for Indian Opportunity. The collaboration highlights how tricky it’s become for brands to use cultures that aren’t their own to sell products, even in cases where it involves people from those cultures directly.

A week ago, Dior published a video on its YouTube channel about how the film sought to ensure the portrayal of native peoples was accurate and respectful. In it, Ron Martinez Looking Elk, an artist from the Isleta and Taos Pueblos in New Mexico, talks about the problem of stereotypical portrayals of native peoples and says, “This is a good platform, projects like this, because it opens the door for dialogue. And it’s not about selling out or giving anything away to appropriate our indigenous communities. It’s a celebration.”

Also featured in the video is Canku Thomas One Star, a well-known dancer and the one who appears in the clip Dior tweeted. “I do believe we need more Native American representation in the mainstream media,” he says. “It’s a perfect way to educate and raise that awareness. It’s a way to showcase the beautiful cultures that we have.”

Sauvage is not a name Dior created for this campaign, either. It first launched the line in 2015. Johnny Depp, who appears in the new campaign, has been its face since. (Depp’s involvement in the new campaign is a subject of controversy itself given his own problematic history with Native American cultures.)

Cultural appropriation has been a touchy subject for fashion labels, which have a long history of pulling ideas and techniques from other cultures under the guise of “inspiration.” The profits they reap, however, are rarely shared with their sources. Some argue this borrowing is simply part of how creativity works. But many others point out the undeniable resemblance to colonialist pillaging, only now it’s focused more subtly on intellectual property.

Communities have started to fight back. The Mexican government is involved in a battle to defend the work of indigenous designers. It’s become abundantly clear to brands that they need to make sure they include the communities that inspire them. Too often they still don’t, though, leaving people to default to anger when they see an ad like Dior’s.

Critics may argue Dior’s campaign still offers a narrow portrayal of native cultures. The Native Americans in it appear in traditional clothing, for instance, while Johnny Depp is dressed like, well, a version of himself, and plays a guitar for some reason. (To be fair, it’s not that unusual among the catalog of notoriously bizarre fragrance ads.) Dior also appears to have come up with the idea to pair Native American imagery with a fragrance called Sauvage first, and then sought out consultants after. The concept is still the brand’s. Not least of all, Dior is using this imagery to sell a product. We have reached out to Dior for comment and will update this story with any reply.

But you could also argue that Dior’s ad is beneficial for everyone involved because it did work with the community it wanted to depict. “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,” Laura Harris, executive director of AIO, said in a statement released after backlash to the ad picked up online. “AIO does not speak for all Indigenous peoples. We are proud to have successfully achieved our goals of education and inclusion for this project with Parfums Christian Dior.”

This story has been updated to note that Dior deleted its original post on Twitter.