(NYTIMES) Another day, another brand being called out on social media for a misbegotten product.
The latest name in the cross hairs is Chanel, and the latest offering in question is a glossy black wood-and-resin boomerang sporting the double C logo and priced at US$1,325 (S$1,800). In Australia, home of Aboriginal culture and the boomerang, this has not gone down well.
Rather, the French brand is being accused of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the underprivileged and ignorance.
Twitter, which has become something of a go-to platform for people policing brand behavior (see, for example, Zara and its use of a frog that resembled the alt-right symbol Pepe the frog; Nordstrom and its mud-splattered jeans; Marc Jacobs and his runway dreadlocks), is alight with the sound of 140-character blame.
And a lot more like that.
On Instagram, makeup artist Jeffree Star posted a photo of his recent acquisition with the line "Having so much fun with my new #Chanel boomerang".
As of Tuesday morning, the post had more than 150,000 likes and a deluge of comments along the lines of "If only you knew what the indigenous peoples of Australia went through…".
Chastened, Chanel has issued a quasi-apologetic statement through a spokeswoman that reads in part: "Chanel is extremely committed to respecting all cultures and deeply regrets that some may have felt offended.
"The inspiration was taken from leisure activities from other parts of the world, and it was not our intention to disrespect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and the significance of the boomerang as a cultural object."
However, that being said, the boomerang is still for sale.
As it turns out, Chanel has been selling boomerangs sporadically since 2005, as part of its line of sporting accessories, which has also included boxing gloves, skis, bicycles, tennis balls, tennis rackets, surfboards … you get the idea. All branded, and all very expensive.
Eyes have been rolling pretty much since it started - after all, no self-respecting athlete in any sport would play with Chanel-branded equipment; it is practically a badge of a lack of seriousness - but that has not stopped the brand from selling the items, so something must have been working. Apparently it is not working anymore.
Simply consider that in 2013, the fellow French luxury brand Hermès offered a US$580 boomerang of its own "in java solid palissander wood" seemingly without recrimination.
Or the fact that, as Alexander Fury pointed out in T magazine apropos of the Marc Jacobs uproar, fashion has been engaged in one form or another of cultural appropriation for decades. Yves Saint Laurent's 1967 Africa collection, anyone?
Paul Poiret's and Alexander McQueen's embrace of Orientalism, recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute show China Through the Looking Glass? John Galliano's 1998 Dior collection, titled, in part, Story of Princess Pocahontas?
So what changed? The issue seems to be a combination of heightened cultural sensitivity broadly speaking and newly empowered digital activists.
In a comment piece for NITV, Australia's National Indigenous Television, the journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber, a self-described "proud Gomeroi woman", wrote: "Our artists spend hours and hours telling stories more than 50,000 years old through a variety of mediums, including painting, song, dance, creating weapons and instruments. They are telling the stories of our people and their personal experiences. They do this not just to express themselves, but to share our culture with the world."
By contrast, the Chanel boomerang has no story, and no deeper meaning.
And whereas once borrowing inspiration (a synonym for cultural appropriation) might have been seen as an acknowledgment of the value of that creation, now it is viewed as stealing.
This is especially true when it comes to offerings like the Chanel boomerang, where there does not seem to be any particular added value to the item - it is not as if Chanel took the object and "Chanel-ified" it in any apparent way, other than to plunk their logo in the middle. The average weekend boomerang, for example, is sold on Amazon for about $14.95.
So what is a brand to do? Never look to another culture for ideas? Hide in its little box until President Donald Trump tweets and the digisphere is distracted by another issue?
Perhaps the answer is simply to broaden the tent. Imagine, for example, if Chanel has enlisted actual Aboriginal artisans in the making of their product; if they had earmarked some percentage of sales for Aboriginal causes, and spent time with them. If instead of simply seeming to profit from other people's history and symbolism, they enabled it? Would the reaction have been so furious?
Maybe. But at the very least, Chanel would probably have had some on-the-ground defenders.
There have been enough of these sorts of minifurors lately that you would think brands would learn from them instead of repeating them. Perhaps it is time to begin.