Beauty and Fashion: Did Carolina Herrera Copy Mexican Designs?

Why should we care?

Yes, I agree that Carolina Herrera’s new 2020 resort collection, just unveiled, is beautiful. The collection, the company says, is inspired by Mexican indigenous designs. When you look at the clothes, some of the designs are startling — exact duplicates of textiles made by hand in Mexican villages for centuries. Excusing this behavior because it is beautiful, ignores deeper questions about race, culture, heritage, history. Why don’t we call it what it is? Plagiarism. Stealing. Copying.

Okay. I’m angry.

Outrage is not based on whether a fashion house creates a beautiful line of clothing for it’s ultra-rich clientele nor does the beauty as a subjective assessment, figure into the discussion.

It is based on how and why indigenous people create the cloth they wear, who has authority and power, and who receives recognition and compensation.

Yesterday, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the New York Times, wrote Homage or Theft? Carolina Herrera Called Out By Mexican Minister. It fuels the conversation about cultural appropriation issues, a hot topic today among those of us who respect indigenous people and what they make. Theirs is a history of culture, family, storytelling, spirituality and belief, through cloth as a cultural expression.

Lifting designs out of context violates the very foundation of culture. We have a hard time understanding this in the USA because we are bred in a culture of be more, earn more, get more, compete more. Here in Mexico, culture is based on community, family and ancient rituals. Clothing interprets this.

What fascinated me most was reading the comments from seemingly intelligent, considerate readers of the New York Times. I encourage you to read the comments section. There are over 450 comments. Overwhelmingly, people feel that:

  • the Herrera designs are beautiful and unique, and in no way resemble the indigenous clothing style of, for example, the Otomi traditional embroidered dress
  • cultural appropriation is PC — politically correct references that which is used to avoid offensive language
  • there are no legal restrictions on design, and runway designs are being copied and mass-marketed everywhere
  • imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
  • artists and creatives take their inspiration from wherever they want
  • political correctness in art and fashion has gone too far

I was surprised to read the responses that confirm that the Western world is either ignorant of or doesn’t appreciate the issues of disenfranchisement facing talented people, who are marginalized with little or no voice and have no legal protections. I am angry that people are blinded to human rights. Someone said, There is no such thing as cultural identity.

But, why should I be surprised? Indigenous design theft is only one more version of the power and wealth imbalance of conquerors with their attendant racism.

Here is what I wrote in the NY Times comment section in response to the Vanessa Friedman article:

Here we go again! This is a recurring theme of the privileged who think that “borrowing” from indigenous cultures is equal to paying homage, respect, and XXX Many of you label cultural appropriation as PC. It’s actually a real problem in Mexico when poor people living in remote areas have no voice to protect what belongs to them. People living and creating in indigenous villages for thousands of years don’t know about PC. They do know that working the cloth takes months. They learned it from their grandmothers and the designs include sacred symbols that have cultural, spiritual and social meaning. There is no context for the designs that haven been lifted and repurposed for the ultra-rich. There is no compensation to villages whose designs have been stolen. These designs are unique. Unlike music or architecture that builds upon what came before. It is different. These are designs copied verbatim. You get thrown out of college for that! Remember? Yes, the CH designs are beautiful – but because the original designs are beautiful. Let’s get it right. Let’s collaborate, not steal. Let’s employ at a fair wage. Let’s justly compensate. This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about doing what is right in the world. I’ve been living part-time in Oaxaca and working with indigenous artisans for years. Their lives are humble, they are generous, and they are concerned about loss of culture because clothing here is identity. We can help, not hinder the cause.

In response to Gail Pellet on my Facebook page, I say:

We have seen here in Mexico with the Isabel Marant case of stealing Tlahuitoltepec designs, that lawsuits don’t work. The indigenous designs are too old to be covered by copyright and patent protection, and are legally considered part of the public domain. However, the patrimony of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture is at risk. Invasion continues in its modern form.

And, in a conversation with Carry Somers, founder of #fashionrevolution on her Instagram page, I noted:

… the luxury brands are stealing our indigenous/native designs without compensation. There is a poverty of ethics in our world.

She says: We need to look to the Nagoya Protocol to protect indigenous knowledge around biological resources and need some comparable protection for indigenous designs. Let’s hope @susana.harp.oaxaca (singer turned senator from Oaxaca) can do something about this.

Please read the NY Times feature, then the comments, and comment, too, if you like. Please don’t comment unless you read the article. Thank you.

16 responses to “Beauty and Fashion: Did Carolina Herrera Copy Mexican Designs?

  1. Even before reading the article and comments, I was mightily offended by the first photo of an evening gown with exactly duplicated embroidered Otomi designs. This gown, no doubt, costs what an indigenous artisan could hope to make in a lifetime. But cultural appropriation is a way of life for the 1% and their minions who seem to think everything in the world is theirs for the taking. And so we are truly going to hell in a hand basket of stolen indigenous design.

    • Thanks very much for this comment. This action of taking an indigenous Otomi design and using it, with some small adaptation, without credit, has raised the iré of many. Next question? What’s to be done? What do indigenous people want to happen?

  2. Hi Norma, I’m so glad you added your voice to this continuing dilemma. I agree with you, it is theft and plagiarism. I’ve been using the huipil shape in my art for 16 yrs. now, and even shared in workshops like the one we did together in Teotitlan del Valle a few years ago, I often have an opportunity to ask a weaver or an artisan if they consider my work to be in this category. I’ve been told numerous time, both in Mexico and Guatemala, that no, what I am doing is not the same thing. But the deeper we get into this conversation, I still continually worry about how to give back in a more just and meaningful way than simply the honoring and sharing of the cultures and traditions. What would be your honest opinion on how to approach this conundrum? I don’t get to spend as much time down there as I used to, and sometimes feel so removed from the women themselves. However, I’m very open to ideas and suggestions for being a more conscious advocate of the huipil tradition.

    • I love this question because it digs deeper into self-reflection about “what is our part” in this? I am hardly the arbitrator about what is cultural appropriation and what isn’t! That you continue to ask huipil makers what they think is important. We also know that Mexicans are used to deflecting thorny questions. Indigenous people are acculturated to get along in the group, the community, and avoid conflict. So, do we really know if it’s a problem for them or not? All this to say, you are an interpretive artist. You take an original shape or form, adapt it, manipulate it, use it as a message board to draw social and political themes that call out to us, usually about the role and voiceless was of woman. I could hardly compare what you to to the Profit Temple of Carolina Herrera and others like her who have little or no social conscience and believe the world is there for their taking. I’d say, continue the check-in. Ultimately this dialog with indigenous people will give them greater voice and we may come to the truth of knowing how they really feel about this issue we are calling Cultural Appropriation. Besos.

  3. Carolina Herrera can no longer be known as a Designer but for what she is: a THIEF. There are Intellectual Property Laws which are meant to protect everyone. It appears that many Designers, however, believe that they don’t protect artists with brown and black skin which makes them not only THIEVES but RACIST THIEVES! I share your anger Norma. We must keep posting about this issue.

    • Thank you Sasha for joining forces and voices. The IP laws that I know about ie UNESCO recognize the identity of a people as created in their cloth as a cultural patrimony. However, nothing that I know of is enforced. Everyone says copyright laws offer no protection.

  4. Thank you for throwing a glaring light on this terribly sad, greedy, thoughtless act of stealing. I’m going to go to a small village in Oaxaca at the end of the year…I have become enchanted with the people of Oaxaca (thru the beautiful friendship of a young man from Oaxaca-Mixteca region- who I have taken into my heart, my family. His mother, my friend/sister thru interpreted conversation & letters, has invited me to a family wedding…I knew it was time to go and recently bought my ticket!) and wear that love & respect deeply in my heart. As a quilter, I found your online presence and your love of Oaxaca was a big bonus…I’ve been learning much and loving the people even more thru your posts. ! I hope to do something to bring the extraordinary textile art of these women to my world of quilters, fiber artists and textile artists (no stealing!)…thank you again for your love of the people of Oaxaca and sharing it with all who will listen & see. ❤️

    • Dear Teresa, I’m touched by your comments. Thank you so much for appreciating what I do and write. It means a lot to me to hear this. Especially after spending the day reading the NYTimes comments and wondering how people come to be as they are. That you have befriended a Mixtec family, will travel here to participate in The wedding celebration clearly speaks of your ability and desire to connect and understand and create relationships with people we respect. We need more people like you!

  5. Hi Norma,
    Thanks for alerting us to this practice. It reminds me of the Lacondonan rain forest in Chiapas where Monsanto has patented certain plants [“bio-piracy”] that have been used for eons by the Lacondonan people. I learned this in the Museo de medicamentos in San Cristobal de las Casas. Privatizing living organisms is absurd but apparently legal.

  6. Yes, since the Isabel Marant plagarism confrontation – this has been a hot topic in Central and Southern Mexico where most indigenous artisan live. Plus Mexican legislation has been enacted to protect cultural heritage/designs bringing a wider awareness, at least in Mexico.

    But, I’m also not surprised by the attitude expressed in the comments in the NYTimes because this is the TIRED OLD attitude of those that work in the fashion industry. You can do anything you want with art and design in fashion as long as you change it ‘slightly’. You don’t have to credit anyone.
    I was in that industry for about 15 years and one of my designs was ripped off exactly (almost) but my personal signature silkscreen artwork was left out. This was 2 years after my original garment was featured in the newspaper. I was pissed, but everyone in ‘the industry’ knows that this is a form of compliment. It was good enough design to copy. There is a whole sub-industry that does just that – rip off top designers after fashion week and produce something before their line is even produced!

    WHAT fashion people don’t know is – these designs are the heritage of an ancient indigenous culture and an important form of their identity. Maybe one of the few things they still have. If you haven’t lived in the culture of Mexico, or any other, how would you know this? – or even care!

    So what I see happening, because of the internet, where all cultures are available 24/7 and communication is swift …this entitled behavior is no longer appropriate! The old colonial attitude of ‘we can do what we want with your culture…” is being challenged….and just like #metoo movement…artisans can rise their voices and their objections (in this case plagiarism of their symbols and designs)…and embarrass the hell out of these companies that feel it’s their privilege to take what they want from whomever. I’m sure, in time, the industry will wake up!
    Now we’re building new awareness and it’s only the beginning….

    • Bless you Sheri for speaking out. Your first person experience as a fashion designer before you started Living Textiles of Mexico is a testimony to what is important here. I’m grateful for this contribution to the dialog. I wish you would add this as a comment to the NYT article. Not enough of us speaking up coherently and yours is a very thoughtful and compelling comment.

  7. I am replying to add that I agree with everything you’ve said. I saw the article this morning and was outraged at the copied designs as well as the comments.

    What can be done? I see people losing their traditions and my heart breaks.

    I heard that the gap had their hand slapped for knocking off a sweatshirt from a designer. Why isn’t it possible to do the same?

    • Hi, Suzanne, first, I’m happy you are traveling with me to the coast of Oaxaca so you will see first hand the beautiful workmanship of women and men, and you will experience village life, the root of cultural identity here.

      I dont know what can be done. There can be an ethics board, an international protocol, etc. But we live in A world of laws and legal protections. There are no laws that protect the designs of indigenous people. Laws protect the powerful. It’s not likely there will be. If you read all or most of the NYTIMES comments, the overwhelming sentiment is “there is no such thing as an original design and one cannot copyright these designs.” So, without public will coming from a grassroots movement, I think indigenous artisans have a right to be wary. Many designers of home goods and fashion come to Mexico for inspiration, and look for a cheaper source for production. And, as they say, business is business. And we know what that means. So the best we can do is buy direct from artisans at the price they ask. It is always fair based on time and materials! Un abrazo.

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