By Victoria Boyd-
In June this year, Mexican culture minister Alejandra Frausto wrote letters to popular fashion brands Zara, Anthropologie and Patowl criticising the use and appropriation of Mexican indigenous designs and patterns in their collections. In an official statement, the ministry reported that Frausto demanded an explanation for the use of the designs and questioned whether the indigenous communities from the Oaxaca region would benefit financially from these items.
Specifically, in its statement, the government accused Zara of copying a pattern from the Mixteca indigenous community from San Juan Colorado on the embroidery of a mint green dress. Anthropologie was similarly accused of copying the embroidered sun, mountains and maguey plant typical of the designs of the Mixe indigenous community from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec on a pair of embroidered shorts. The ministry further accused Patowl of appropriating the embroidery pattern of blouses from the Zapotec community in San Antonio Castillo Velasco on its embroidered floral blouses.
This is not the first time that brands have been accused of stealing Mexican indigenous designs. Earlier this year, Australian brand Zimmerman was forced to withdraw a dress from its 'Swim' collection which was “inspired” by traditional embroidery of indigenous peoples following backlash from the Oaxaca Artisans Institute.
The Mexican ministry for culture has also previously spoken out against fashion brands for appropriating indigenous designs. In 2019, New York-based label Carolina Herrera came under criticism from the ministry following the release of the Resort 2020 collection, which featured various garments with appropriated designs from three indigenous communities – the Otomi from the municipality of Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo, the Zapotec indigenous community and the traditional sarape shawls from Saltillo in Coahuila. Following the criticism, head designer Wes Gordon responded that he was inspired following a trip to the country, and the brand claimed the collection was a “tribute to the richness of Mexican culture”.
Similarly, in 2019 Louis Vuitton was criticised by Frausto over the design of a chair, and in 2015 French designer Isabel Marant faced backlash from the Tlahuitoltepec community for designing a blouse inspired by their traditional designs. In a twist in this case, she used the inspiration from the community in her legal defence while being sued by French fashion label Antik Batik, who claimed copyright over the designs. The court ruled in Marant’s favour, stating that because the designs originated from the Mixe community, Antik Batik could not claim intellectual property rights. The community, however, did not receive any compensation.
While various brands and labels have responded to backlash stating that they were “inspired” by these Mexican indigenous designs, patterns, textiles and techniques, the issue at stake goes beyond the simple copying of a pattern or textile. It is the forceful taking of an aspect of indigenous culture and identity. To understand the bigger picture and the full extent of the roots of cultural appropriation it is necessary to look back in time and consider the colonial history of Mexico.
From the forced taking of land and exploitation of indigenous labour to the more recent appropriation of indigenous dress during the 1940s, throughout the colonial and post-colonial history of Mexico indigenous communities have been subject to exploitation and theft from non-indigenous outsiders. Peter Shand, a researcher on the issues of indigenous cultural appropriation in New Zealand, argues that appropriation of indigenous cultures is a continuation of power relations that were formed during the colonial period– of the dominant outsider taking what they please from the native communities and profiting from it, with little consideration, rights, or benefits given to the communities themselves.
Moreover, in Mexico, due to the centuries of marginalisation and exclusion that indigenous peoples and communities have endured, their textiles, designs and patterns have become a central form of resistance and of maintaining their culture and autonomy. The designs of local communities often represent their story, history and identity, and selling textiles is central to the livelihoods of many. This cultural appropriation can therefore threaten the livelihoods of the indigenous communities. As Brigitte Vézina, a researcher on legal means to protect traditional cultural expressions, reports, in many cases, cheaper made appropriated designs are actually sold in the same markets alongside the products of the artisans, directly competing against those communities that created the designs in the first place.
The appropriation, or theft, of these designs is therefore another form of oppression and marginalisation that indigenous communities suffer. When an international fashion label uses their entitlement to copy designs of indigenous origin and profits from this appropriation, they are continuing this colonial power and domination which has threatened indigenous communities for centuries.
That is not to say that there should be no collaboration with indigenous designers, or that Mexican indigenous art should be for native eyes only. Designers and fashion labels shouldn’t be prevented from taking inspiration from the world outside, but they should do so in an ethical manner, without stealing and perpetuating this colonial form of power.
To offer guidelines on how to approach indigenous designs, Vézina formulated several principles of ethical design, centred around the consent of indigenous communities. She suggests that fashion brands should understand and respect indigenous cultures, that they should look to transform ideas, not directly copy designs, they should acknowledge and attribute their inspiration openly and finally that “Authorization, Involvement, Participation and Collaboration” is the best way to ensure that designs inspired by indigenous cultures are ethical at every step of the process.
This approach, however, relies on brands themselves ensuring they act ethically. This is clearly not always the case, and there are various factors, including the collective ownership of designs and the narrow scope of copyright laws, which makes protecting indigenous patterns and art through legal means complex and ineffective.
However, with the rise of social media activism, in recent years there has been a greater demand for accountability of fashion brands. As researchers Sádaba, LaFata and Torres describe, the digital context forces brands to be accountable to their following online. As the link between the brand, the community and their customers is increasingly direct and involved, the brands must respond quickly to criticisms to maintain their image.
Furthermore, in Mexico, it is the government itself who has stepped in to voice its objection to the appropriation of indigenous patterns by brands like Zara, Patowl and Anthropologie. In a county that was founded on the forced taking of land from indigenous peoples and erasures of indigenous cultures, the government’s defence of indigenous communities is neither insignificant nor expected.
Historical national projects of indigenismo and mestizaje, centred around the assimilation of the indigenous population into the national mestizo, mixed Mexican identity, and the eventual erasure of the indigenous population have prevailed since independence in 1821 until the late 20th century. Frausto’s defence of indigenous communities and criticism of international fashion brands, however, contradicts these historical projects of erasure by explicitly signalling that the Mexican state views indigenous cultures as valuable, as something to be protected, and an important part of the Mexican national identity.
This is a sign that the tide is changing, that indigenous cultures are being increasingly valued by the state, that powerful international labels are being held accountable for their stealing by governments and social media activists alike. Ethical consumerism is becoming increasingly popular and this trend of holding brands accountable for their appropriation of indigenous designs is a definite step towards the decolonisation of practices in the fashion industry.
Farley, C. H. (1997) ‘Protecting Folklore of Indigenous Peoples: Is Intellectual Property the Answer?’, Connecticut Law Review, 30(1), pp. 1–58.
Peña, G. de la (2006) ‘A New Mexican Nationalism? Indigenous Rights, Constitutional Reform and the Conflicting Meanings of Multiculturalism’, Nations and Nationalism, 12(2), pp. 279–302. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8129.2006.00241.x.
Sádaba, T., LaFata, V. and Torres, A. (2020) ‘Cultural Appropriation in the Digital Context: A Comparative Study Between Two Fashion Cases’, in Nah, F. F.-H. and Siau, K. (eds) HCI in Business, Government and Organizations. Cham, Switzerland: Springer
Shand, P. (2002) ‘Scenes from the Colonial Catwalk: Cultural Appropriation, Intellectual Property Rights, and Fashion’, Cultural Analysis, 3, pp. 47–88.
Vézina, B. (2019) ‘Curbing Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry’, CIGI Papers, 213, pp. 1–16.