Here’s What The Mexican Government Has To Say About A Venezuelan Fashion Designer Taking Indigenous Mexican Textiles
Latinxs are often calling out some gringo brand for appropriating our cultura to make a buck, but now it’s a Latina designer who is facing criticism for stealing cultural styles.
The Mexican government is accusing the US fashion house Carolina Herrera of cultural appropriation, CNN reports.
According to Mexico’s Culture Ministry, the high-end brand’s patterns used in the Resort 2020 collection steals designs created by and that are meaningful to the country’s indigenous communities.
“For many years we have been trying to stop big brands and designers, who, in this disrespectful manner, take elements of indigenous cultures without approaching the communities or working with them,” Susana Harp, a senator from the ruling National Regeneration Movement party, said on Twitter, using the trending hashtag #MéxicoSinPlagio — “Mexico Without Plagiarism.”
The fashion house has described the collection, which features traditional flower designs, as taking “on the playful and colorful mood of a Latin holiday.”
“Inspired by the House spirit of alegría de vivir that is synonymous with the resort season, this collection is about visceral reactions of delight-eclectic patterns, unexpected silhouettes, pulsating energy,” its description reads.
In response to the mounting criticism, creative director Wes Gorden, who took over the position last year when Venezuelan-American Herrera, 80, stepped down, said: “There’s an undeniable Mexican presence in this collection. It’s something that jumps out at you, and I always intended it to be something latent as a way of showing my love for this country and for all the incredible work I’ve seen there. My admiration for the artisanal work has only grown as I have traveled to Mexico over the years. With this new collection, I have tried to highlight the importance of this magnificent cultural heritage.”
The Mexican people are, understandably, unsatisfied with Gorden’s response.
In the past, Herrera, who has dressed celebrities and high-profile figures like first ladies Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, has worked with the indigenous community on a bag collection, a history that Harp remembers and adds to her confusion as to why the house would now use these designs “without permission, without respect, without any economic consideration.”
“This is a matter of ethical consideration that obliges us to speak out and bring an urgent issue to the UN’s sustainable development agenda: promoting inclusion and making those who are invisible visible,” Mexico’s culture secretary Alejandra Frausto said in a letter to Herrera, as reported by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
He continued: “In these embroideries is the history of the community itself, and each element has a personal, family and community meaning,” he said. By looking at the collection, there’s no doubt that the designer takes Mexican heritage and flaunts it. They admitted it too.”
Often the target of cultural appropriation by the fashion industry, Mexico’s National Regeneration Movement party recently introduced protections for designs created by indigenous people.
The country’s public callout of one of the biggest global fashion houses is evidence that they mean business.
Meanwhile*, with everyone gearing up to travel for summer vacation, one Twitter user wants to give tourists an important reminder. Reyna Chabeli took to Twitter to stress the importance of paying Indigenous craftswomen what they’re worth.
Retweeting a tweet she made in November 2018, Chabeli shared a picture of her grandma Abuelita Chona and the gorgeous bordado she stitches by hand.
“As an Indigenous woman, she will only get paid $5 for this work, front and back.” Chabeli continued, “Most people can’t afford to start their own clothing business so they are literally the artists behind the embroidery. Natives return the finished pieces back to the merchants who pay them poorly.”
The bordados are as gorgeous as they are functional — combining skill and art in each piece. Craftswomen spend several hours working on each embroidered item; using a mastery that is honed over a lifetime. For Indigenous artisans, embroidery is just as much a connection to their history and heritage as it is their source of income.
However, the profit made on these Indigenous works often don’t match the labor put into creating them. Moreover, the artists themselves see even less of a payback.
For example, Abuelita Chona is a Zapotec woman who lives in a small Oaxacan village three hours away from the nearest large town. It’s exceptionally expensive and difficult to regularly travel back and forth to sell her goods.
Instead, women like Abuelita Chona work for merchants, receiving garments, embroidering them and usually sending them back. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give these Indigenous artesanas much financial freedom. They’re only given a fraction of what their work is worth without regard for the labor they put in. These women also have no recourse to ask for more.
This isn’t the only way that the work of Indigenous artists is undervalued. Tourists play a major part as well.
As Chabeli explains in her retweet, tourists who travel to places like Oaxaca diminish the income of Indigenous artisans even further. In haggling and attempting to get the lowest price for these wares, visitors cut into the take-home profit of the workers.
Worried about missing a sale opportunity, many artisans will just agree on that lower price. However, the merchants who initially provide the items are in charge of the money. Ultimately, they will get every cent they feel entitled to at the detriment of their workers. So, thrifty buying might save tourists a few bucks but it will do so by taking money out of artisans’ pockets.
Another layer to this conversation is the lack of value placed on Indigenous labor.
As Chabeli and other Twitter users point out, tourists are willing to spend their money on luxuries and travel. It’s because we place value in these things. We feel like they’re worth the investment because we desire them. We never try to haggle at the airport or resort because we respect the value attached to these things.
Yet, when it comes to locally made goods — especially goods made by Indigenous folk — we think we can get a better deal. We desire the products for their beauty, uniqueness but don’t always want to pay a fair price. In trying to get a lower price for those souvenirs, we’re showing Indigenous artisans like Abuelita Chona that we don’t value them.
Of course, not every tourist is out to lowball Native artisans when they hit up local markets. Still, Chabeli’s reminder is justified.
We can support women like our talented Abuelita Chona by buying local and. buying Indigenous. Also, by following Chabeli’s example and calling out problematic treatment of wage distribution. What we are given in return is definitely worth price.
*The last portion of this article was reported on by Samantha Chavarria