H&M aboriginal headdress controversy probably won’t hurt fashion retailer

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
H&M aboriginal headdress controversy probably won’t hurt fashion retailer

As you read this story, you might want to keep this old saying from legendary huckster P.T. Barnum in mind: There is no such thing as bad publicity.

There are of course exceptions to that rule — your favourite celebrity is found with a stash of kiddie porn, a respected company is revealed to be dumping toxic waste. But even then, epic lapses open the door to triumphant public redemption, for those that seize the opportunity.

Which brings us to H&M, the Swedish-based international clothing retailer that stepped in it by offering what looks like an aboriginal feathered headdress as a fashion accessory.

It didn't take long for complaints to come in from First Nations people, The Canadian Press reports.

Kim Wheeler of Winnipeg, who is Ojibwa-Mohawk, was shopping in H&M's downtown Vancouver store with her daughter when she spotted the $15 item last week.

"My first instinct was to buy all of them and throw them in the garbage," Wheeler, who works in media relations, told CP.

"It's not honouring us. It's not flattering us. It's making a mockery of our culture. We just don't think it's cool."

[ Related: H&M pulls fashion headdresses from Canadian stores after getting complaints ]

Wheeler emailed H&M's corporate offices to explain.

"Headdresses are worn by chiefs in some of our communities," she wrote. "It is a symbol of respect and honour and should not be for sale as some sort of cute accessory. It is not honourable nor flattering."

First Nations people have been battling against the "hipster head-dressing" for some time, she added.

H&M spokeswoman Emily Scarlett told CP the company received three complaints about the headdresses, but that was enough to trigger an order Tuesday to pull them from its 61 Canadian stores. She wasn't sure if they they would be removed from its outlets in other countries.

The headdresses were part of its "H&M Loves Music" collection, Scarlett said. There was no sign Friday of the offending piece on the collection's web page, where head gear seemed limited to a selection of toques.

Scarlett said the collection had also included flower wreaths in a nod to the hippy-dippy sixties.

"Music festivals these days are really about experimenting with fashion and dressing your personality," she told CP. "And they're very heavily based on accessories, really accessorizing your look."

H&M's quick response to a relatively small number of complaints headed off a potential PR headache and, not coincidentally, got the store's name out there.

Fashion retailing is a tough business, where stores and clothing lines fight to get noticed. Sometimes that means walking the line between edgy and terminally offensive.

Take Urban Outfitters, which the The Week notes has a history of offering products that have offended aboriginals, Jews, blacks and groups fighting eating disorders.

One line of T-shirts appeared to promote under-age drinking, and members of an American First Nation demanded the company yank a collection of faux Navajo clothing and accessories.

[ Related: American Apparel ads banned in U.K. still online in Canada ]

Then there's American Apparel, founded by Canadian Dov Charney, which has been excoriated regularly for its push-the-envelope marketing and ad campaigns.

Earlier this year, The British Advertising Standards Authority banned two of the retailer's ads because it said they sexually objectified women, Time reported last spring.

In 2007, American Apparel triggered a backlash in the U.S. over a billboard that showed a topless woman wearing only tights and bent over against a wall. Critics complained it promoted rape, according to NowPublic.

And in 2010, a series of American Apparel ads were hammered in Canada as coming perilously close to kiddie porn, CBS News reported at the time.

If you're old enough, you'll remember the flap over the 1980 campaign for Calvin Klein jeans, which used barely teenage model and starlet Brooke Shields in a series of sexually suggestive ads. The most provocative had Shields asking "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing?"

"Pondering the thing the nothingness that got between Ms. Shields and her Calvins sent a few networks, including CBS, into shock," Advertising Age recalled in a look-back piece last year.

"They wouldn't run the ad. But for Calvin, buzz around the entire campaign, including the too-sexy-for-TV spot, contributed to sales of $2 million per month, according to a Vogue 2011 article, which referred to Ms. Shields' in the ads as 'Lolita-esque' and the pulled spot as 'one of the most memorable commercials ever.' "

I bet Calvin Klein would kill for that kind of profile today.