April 06, 2011

Designer fantasizes about "eternal America"

Natalia Brilli on Leather, S&M, and American History

By Alice PfeifferPreviously head accessory designer for Rochas, Natalia Brilli now specializes in leather. Frustrated with the bondage connotation the material sometimes has, her mission is to make it “noble” again and her technique consists of intricately sheathing objects ranging from pearl necklaces to entire drum kits entirely by hand. We met her in her showroom in the Marais, as she presented her latest collection, to talk cow-skin, it-bags and her passion for American history.

ELLE:  The theme of your collection is ‘Native American’. How do you make this original and Brilli-like when so many designers, Pamela Love amongst others, have used the same inspiration?

NB:  The theme of Native America is part of the history of a continent, but is also, through its importance and richness a universal theme; it is therefore normal that lots of designers are inspired by it, every season—especially in the summer, it seems to be a recurring theme. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the United States, but from the perspective of a European watching Westerns; I had visions of plains, buffalos, forests with bears, clich├ęs of course, but also novels by Jim Harrison, in other words an eternal America that a European can fantasize about.

ELLE:  So how did you infuse all these inspirations into your designs?

NB:  I listed all the elements that are part of the Native American folklore, from feathers to horns, but also traditional jewelry and objects such as dream catchers—in other words, many things that have been exploited in a cheap way for touristic purposes, and have thus lost their meaning and beauty. So I appropriated all the symbols by sheathing them in leather. They become monochrome objects and transcend into another dimension, the superfluous disappears leaving only beauty.
Comment:  Yes, Natalia, those are cliche´s. Calling them cliche´s doesn't make them any less cliche´d. Congratulations on your derivative work.

Fantasizing about an "eternal America" is what many European hobbyists and American mascot lovers do, of course. They cry over a lost "golden age" while ignoring the problems of today's America. In reality, most Indians weren't like Plains Indians then and they definitely aren't like them now. But Brilli wants to reinforce Native stereotypes with dreamcatchers and feathers.

For more on cultural appropriation in fashion, see Native Fashions in Vogue and Are Native-Inspired Fashions Okay? For more on why people fantasize about Indians, see Why Wannabes Wanna Be.

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