Collaboration, Not Appropriation

Last month, the wife of Mexico’s president alleged that the Ralph Lauren fashion label had plagiarized a number of designs associated with Mexico’s indigenous Contla and Saltillo communities. The brand said it had thought all such goods had been removed from retail stores a few months earlier, when it had first recognized the issue, and it apologized and said it was open to conversations about how it could do better. The label also noted that it had developed a model of “credit and collaboration” that would govern its use of indigenous designs after the summer 2023 season.

Lauren is not the only global designer to find itself in this position, especially in recent years as looks similar to the colorful florals and embroidered textiles for which Mexican indigenous communities are known have become popular with consumers worldwide. The government of Mexico has been spearheading the calling out of designers who it says are plagiarizing or misappropriating designs associated with indigenous groups in Mexico. Fashion publications, fans on social media, and others have joined the chorus. That has typically led to the designers removing the article or articles from their collections and issuing apologies to address the backlash.

Critics note that cultural rights and heritage are protected by the United Nations and that the items have deep symbolic and sometimes religious meaning beyond their look and feel and their practical use in daily life. If indigenous patterns and traditional craft methods are used at all, they say, designers should work with the indigenous communities, compensate them, and elevate their culture rather than allowing it to become just a design inspiration.

Some of the designers on a growing list of labels that have found themselves at the center of misappropriation controversies involving indigenous communities in Mexico, in addition to Ralph Lauren, include:

  • Shein. The Chinese fast-fashion retailer was accused in July of this year of selling a floral top modeled after a Mayan huipil (a traditional embroidered garment), which was nearly identical to one marketed by the Mexican textile and clothing company YucaChulas, which works with indigenous artisans and incorporates their designs into its products. Shein removed the item from its website after the backlash.
  • Zara. The retailer was alleged in 2021 to have used a design associated with the Mixtec community in a light green embroidered midi dress. It responded that it had not intentionally borrowed from, or been influenced by, the work of the Mixtec people. The Mexican government made separate but similar allegations against retailer Anthropologie at the same time.
  • Isabel Marant. In 2019, Marant introduced a pancho whose design was almost identical to the work of the Purépecha community in the State of Michoacan. She had also been accused five years earlier, by an Oaxacan singer, of copying a 600-year-old design of the Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec people.
  • Louis Vuitton. The label released a chair in its collaborative Dolls by Raw Edges collection, also in 2019, that featured traditional designs from Hidalgo. In 2020, it took a different route, partnering with La Casa Don Juan, an artisanal workshop in Oaxaca, to release trunks for the brand featuring traditional Zapotec nahuales (shape shifters that can take animal forms) decorated by Mexican artisans.
  • Carolina Herrera. Again in 2019, the Puig-owned Herrera label faced accusations that gowns, coats, and cocktail dresses in its 2020 resort collection featured patterns and embroidery techniques uniquely associated with the Tenango de Doria community in Hidalgo. The label’s current designer argued that the pieces were inspired by a vacation trip to Latin America and a tribute to Latin culture. (Founder Herrera was born in Venezuela.)

In some ways, the Mexican government’s position has been deemed controversial. For one thing, it too is speaking on behalf of the indigenous communities rather than giving those communities their own voice. In addition, some fashion experts point out that such accusations can go too far when they extend to designs that are inspired by—not copied from—a culture, since fashion’s evolution has always been informed and inspired by what has gone before. But in the case of indigenous designs, most experts agree that it is best to stay away unless the communities themselves are involved, compensated, and uplifted. Many of the misappropriated designs have been selling for hundreds of dollars when discovered, although giving the groups their fair share of that money is not typically the most important issue involved.

This is where collaborations come into the picture. Working with the indigenous communities directly—or more commonly through an intermediary that has direct ties, such as a local designer, a museum, or a group that is helping trademark and market traditional designs—can be an option, and some marketers have taken this route with indigenous communities and their representatives around the world.

In Mexico, a number of designers are known for their associations with indigenous artisans. Carolina Fernández founded a label that works with indigenous textile makers across Mexico, hoping to protect the designs from extinction and pay the artisans for their textile work and the use of their intellectual property. Other labels with similar missions include Amor & Rosas, Fabrica Social, Laguna Collective, MZ Fair Trade, and Someone Somewhere, among others.

This month’s Raugust Communications e-newsletter comes out tomorrow, November 15, 2022. The Licensing Topic of the Month examines recent innovative retail partnerships, while the Datapoint research spotlight offers an analysis of how experiential configurations have been evolving. If you do not yet receive this free, twice-weekly publication, you can subscribe here.

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