Sunday 01, Nov 2020, Delhi (India)
They say art imitates life. But in the fashion industry and the latest fashion trends, this often takes a literal meaning and leads to cases of plagiarism and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation, at times, also called cultural misappropriation, refers to the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures. A country that has been no stranger to such incidents in Mexico.
The most recent is the case of Venezuelan fashion designer Carolina Herrera. The Mexican government led by President Andrés Obrador had sent an official letter to the designer asking for an explanation for her company’s use of indigenous Mexican designs in her latest collection. The letter that accuses the brand of cultural appropriation, had been sent to Herrera and the brand’s creative director, Wes Gordon, by the nation’s culture minister Alejandra Frausto specifically pointing out certain pieces from their new Resort 2020 line.
The accusation claimed that one long white dress embroidered with bright animals, colours and flowers was derived from the culture of the Tenango de Doria community in Hidalgo state where each piece of embroidery tells the story of the community and each element has a personal, family or community meaning. In addition, two other dresses displayed elements from the traditional shawls of Saltillo in Coahuila state. Culture minister, Frausto asked the designer to explain how they chose those particular designs and also questioned what benefits the indigenous communities would receive from the usage of their designs.
Carolina Herrera is known as a seasoned fashion designer, famous for her avant-garde fashion vibe and clothing and fragrances inspired by the same vibe. The people she has dressed includes A-listers like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle and Karlie Kloss, to name a few. Responding to the letter by Mexico, the brand said that its Resort 2020 line “takes on the playful and colourful mood of a Latin holiday” and it is all about “visceral reactions of delight-eclectic patterns, unexpected silhouettes, pulsating energy”. A small introduction in the Carolina Herrera catalogue stated that the collection was inspired in “a sunrise in Tulum, the light of Lima, a stroll through Mexico City and the colours of Cartagena.” Vogue magazine found the new collection to be “young, fresh and true to the brand’s roots.” However, Frausto was not convinced by the response and she demanded a public explanation from Herrera and Wes Gordon.
Speaking in a statement, Carolina Herrera also said that the collection had been created as a tribute to the richness of Mexican culture and its techniques. She also added, “With this new collection, I have tried to highlight the importance of this magnificent cultural heritage.”
This is not the first time that a renowned fashion brand or the latest fashion trend has been accused of plagiarism. Mexico has dealt with similar cases in the past against brands like Zara, Isabel Marant, Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors. French designer Isabel Marant’s 2015 spring-summer "Étoile" collection got into a controversy for copying designs that belonged to the indigenous Mixe community hailing from the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Marant acknowledged that the designs belonged to them and subsequently pulled them out of sales. The Michael Kors Spring 2019 collection was also in a row for allegedly copying a traditional Mexican design in one of his black and grey hooded sweater pieces from the latest collection.
A few months ago, the Mexican government said that a law would be created to handle the plagiarism that different indigenous communities have suffered by recognising them as the lawful owners of their cultural elements. Many have argued that designers and consumers shouldn't use patterns inspired by sacred pieces of culture as a costume or to try a new and edgy look. Fashion is quickly changing by nature and latest fashion trends also update, but for the people that these designs are coming from, there's a significance to their use of fabric, colours, ideas, and it's one we shouldn't ignore or use without careful consideration of the impact we could be creating. For the fashion industry they must be designs for new collections, but for the people who own these designs – it is a symbol of their identity.