Carolina Herrera is the latest label to be called out for cultural appropriation. Earlier this month, Mexico’s cultural minister Alejandra Frausto accused the fashion house of culturally appropriating indigenous Mexican patterns and textiles in its Resort 2020 collection.
The fashion house described the collection as having “the playful and colourful mood of a Latin holiday.” It features Mexican-inspired textiles and floral embroidery, but there was no acknowledgement that the details and patterns draw from traditional techniques and designs.
In a letter addressed to Herrera, Frausto demanded that she “publicly explain on what basis it decided to make use of these cultural elements whose origins are documented, and how this benefits the (Mexican) communities.”
Fashion is all about experimenting and mixing styles, with many designers taking inspiration from other cultures, but at what point does this become appropriation?
The expert’s view
Violeta Vasquez is an industrial designer from Mexico City and a student of Fashion Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the UK’s London College of Fashion. She is currently organising “A la Mexicana: An encounter of Mexican fashion and artisan techniques,” an exhibition promoting ethical practices between brands and artisans.
“Cultural appropriation is actually very simple, but people make it seem very complicated. The fine line between appropriating and collaborating relies on the humanising and the honest sides of the process. Meaning and approach are everything – designers have to take a step back and look at the meaning of the collective heritage of these communities. The graphic patterns do not have a superficial significance, they mean something for their community, their history and heritage; so why would outsiders think they are allowed to take these designs for their own profitable benefit without giving credit back to the creators?
With her Resort 2020 collection, Carolina Herrera is using “inspiration” from the collective heritage of several regions of Mexico, especially from Hidalgo, a state in the centre region of the country, without giving credit to the artisans, the communities, their collective heritage, the makers or their know-how. What will happen when someone sees a design from Tenango de Doria’s community in Hidalgo? Will they think it is just a copy of the Carolina Herrera design? Or will they recognize the cultural value of the piece?
The only way to celebrate someone’s culture is to give something back to their community; especially if they are marginalised and don’t have the means to earn a living wage or afford a decent quality of life. How do the designers define “celebrating” culture? “Do the artisans get something back from this “celebration”? Are the designers aware that these motifs have a deeper cultural meaning than just average graphic designs, drawings or sketches? These questions are essential when it comes to determining if the brands are “celebrating” culture or if they are only trying to use the patterns as marketing strategies to increase sales.
Inspiration should come from an ethical collaboration and exchange of knowledge. The artisans are not less valuable than the designers – both participants can learn from one another. Designers must not be colonizers – they must be agents of change, propitiating social innovation and favourable conditions for the communities. The exhibition I am organising in London will celebrate ethical collaborations between fashion designers and artisans. I believe that giving credit and paying fair living wages are key activities that ensure cultural appropriation is avoided.
In 2019, a law proposal was created by the Mexican government to regulate the Intellectual Property (IP) of Mexico’s indigenous heritage. This is a huge step towards reaching fair and ethical practices in the country’s fashion industry. Promoted by the senator Susana Harp, it aims to bring about a better quality of life among indigenous communities by making designers – or anyone else – pay for the intellectual property rights of the artisans’ work. In this social-innovative model, society recognises the artisans’ savoir-faire and acknowledges them as real contributors to the creative process.”
You can see examples of ethical and fair collaborations between artisans and designers in the fashion brands that will participate in “A la Mexicana” exhibition in London from July 2 -7.