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.