Locally produced textiles from Oaxacan artisans. Photo: Analuisa Gamboa/Unsplash

The Ethical Implications of Indigenous-Sourced Inspiration 

By KELIN DILLON

“Bad artists copy, good artists steal!” Or so goes the famous quote. Much can be said about the deeper meaning of the words — to make something your own, and better, is an art in and of itself. However, when it comes to stealing designs from indigenous Mexican artisans, it isn’t so much art as it is down right thievery. 

Marant’s 2020 rip-off of Purépecha design. Photo: Google

Isabel Marant allegedly copied Mexican textiles back in October of last year in her Etoile Autumn Winter 2020-21 release, using patterns originated by the Purépecha people of Michoacán, an idea so blatantly stolen even Mexico’s government spoke out against it in the form of a letter from Mexico’s Secretary of Culture Alejandro Frausto Guerrero, addressed directly to Marant.

“I ask you, Mrs. Isabel Marant, to publicly explain on what grounds you privatize a collective property, making use of cultural elements whose origin is fully documented, and how their use rewards benefits to the creative communities,” said Frausto.

Marant’s controversial 2015 design. Photo: Google

This was not Marant’s first foray into taking extensive inspiration from Mexico’s people, however. Back in 2015, Marant allegedly copied designs from the indigenous community in Santa María de Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca. Marant was selling her garments emblazoned with the stolen patterns for $290, over 10 times the price set charged by the original artisans, according to figures from Al Dia. 

A study from the World Bank in 2005 found that threequarters of Mexico’s indiginous population live below the poverty line, and one wonders just how much that $290 Marant profited per item off their designs would have impacted their lives. In comparison, Marant has an alleged networth of over $12 million.

To her credit, Marant apologized multiple times to Frausto following the 2020 incident, and seemingly wanted take action to correct her mistakes, holding a meeting with the Mexican culture secretary to discuss the artistic rights of indigenous communities that went so well even it resulted in Frausto extending an invitation to Marant to visit Mexico following the end of the worldwide covid-19 pandemic. 

Indigenous women from Santa María de Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca. Photo: Change.org

Still, Frausto remains undecided whether international collaboration with indigenous artisans will ever work out favorably for the native artists.

“Someone who has had these actions (of plagiarism) can hardly be interpreted as respectful toward Mexican heritage, beyond admiration or homage or interest in our culture,” said Fausto. 

In terms of getting indigenous Mexican designs out into the world, Frausto said, “There is another way to do it (besides plagiarism) and it has to be with the communities at the center.”

One Carolina Herrera’s controversial garments copying native Mexican design. Photo: Carolina Herrera

Mexico’s culture secretary has good reason to be cautious, following experience. Other notable designers have faced controversy for knocking off Mexican artisans during Frausto’s time in office, like Carolina Herrera in its Resort 2020 collection, which ripped off designs directly from the indigenous populations of Saltillo in Coahuila and Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo. Zara, Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors have also elicited outrage for their alleged plagiarism of indigenous designs.

Frausto used the Herrera incident to “call attention to and put a subject on the table that cannot be postponed: promoting inclusion and making the invisible, visible.”

All this raises the question: How can one ethically celebrate indigenous designs in fashion? Some choice Mexican designers have the answer.

A design from ethical Mexican designer Denisse Kuri. Photo: @DenisseKuri/Instagram

Mexican designer Denisse Kuri creates beautiful modern pieces, including delicate dresses, in collaboration with artisans in Chiapas, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Guerrero and Veracruz, with the mission to “create awareness in our most precious value, the indigenous women, who by working in the brand reach self-support, emotional stability and become self-sufficient,” said the brand’s mission statement.

“I’ve always been very interested in indigenous handmade textiles, but I fell in love while living in Chiapas, where I discovered all their meaning and significance for our culture,” said Kuri. “But more importantly, I met the women behind them that dedicate all that time and hard work to producing them. In 2010, I created the brand inspired by all the knowledge and shared moments that I had the privilege to experience with these women artists.”

Carla Fernández, another renowned Mexican fashion brand, likewise works alongside native loo artisans to create her designs, working with 175 weavers, embroiders, dyers and other artisans across 12 of Mexico’s states to produce the brand’s pieces. Her mission is to help “preserve the rich textile heritage of the indigenous and mestizo communities of her country.”

A bag by Carla Fernandez made in collaboration with local artisans, inspired by Tecuan masks. Photo: Carla Fernandez

Fernández has won multiple awards for her ethical design choices, including Fashion Entrepreneur of the Year by the British Council, showing that morality-driven collaborations can reach wide scale success and acclaim, and perhaps inspiring others to do the same.

Big international fashion houses have and likely always will copy others to keep pushing out work and maintain relevance, but the smaller brands, who are truly concerned about the ethics of their designs, are the ones fighting the good fight. With Mexican designers out there dedicated to lifting up and celebrating Mexico’s indigenous artisans, a semblance of hope remains for the future of native design, these brands deserve recognition for doing their part in truly helping make the invisible, visible.

…Feb. 16, 2021

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