How the Fashion Industry Can Collaborate with Indigenous Communities

Mexico's Minister of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, has taken the issue of cultural appropriation into her own hands.

by Nili Blanck
Jan 22 2021, 1:45pm

Although historians continue to debate whether Picasso really stated that “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” one thing is for certain: the Mexican government doesn’t make a distinction. On October 29, its Minister of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, issued a complaint letter directed at French fashion designer Isabel Marant, requesting an explanation over her eponymous label’s unauthorized use of a poncho from the Purépecha community in Santa Clara Del Cobre, an Indigenous group located in the State of Michoacan. The “imitation” poncho, as Frausto called it, was released as part of the brand’s Étoile 2020-21 collection. 

Frausto’s letter, which she made available to the public via her Twitter account, left no room for debating whether Marant’s poncho is a mere coincidence or an actual copy. Frausto describes, in great detail, how both items possess an oversized fit, their respective bodies knit out of an “irregularly” thick wool dyed in various shades of brown and grey. Of particular note are the unique geometric elements that when combined, make the poncho “exclusively Mexican.” Frausto calls this a “distinct geometry,” comprised of three particular elements: an ornamental Greco border, butterflies, and a Zapotec diamond. Frausto also points out how these shapes “contrast” with the black and white coloring. The Isabel Marant version currently retails on Farfetch for $700 USD.   

“How do you privatize a collective property whose origins are well documented?” Frausto’s letter demands to know. Citing sections Six and Seven of the United Nations Resolution 33/20, which addresses cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage, Frausto makes a connection between Marant’s actions and fashion’s colonial history. “This is about the ethical principle to bring attention to the issue of protecting the rights of those who have historically been made invisible.”

“This isn’t just a blouse, sarape, huipil…these aren’t just physical objects. They have meaning within a living context,” explains Hector Manuel Meneses Lozano, the General Director of the Textile Museum in Oaxaca. Agreeing with the central conceit of Frausto’s letter, Meneses Lozano referrers to the symbolic—even religious—purposes garments like the poncho play within many Indigenous communities. “It’s about the meaning within a living context…the textiles are working within a large network of uses and symbols that transcend what one shirt made in a factory in Asia could have.” 

Echoing Frausto, Meneses Lozano believes that “Marant and other fashion houses are part of making invisible these stories.” He adds, “The textile is just one example of how communities articulate themselves internally and externally. It’s the way the fabric is interwoven with everyday lives of their makers that are also embedded with many values and teachings—history, creative liberty, patience that’s required in the day to day.”

The Isabel Marant poncho currently on sale at Farfetch.

This isn’t the first time a major fashion house has been called out for cultural appropriation, and it isn’t the first time for Isabel Marant, either. Only five years ago, Oaxacan singer Susana Harp accused Marant of plagiarizing a blouse from the community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. The blouse, whose design is over 600 years old, is considered symbolic of the Mixe community’s identity. Marant’s version, made out of a similar canvas-like cloth and adorned with red flowers on the shoulders identical to that of the Tlahuitoltepec’s, sold on Net-a-Porter for over ten times its price in Mexico.

Although there appears to be a consensus about the need to protect Indigenous art from exploitation, perspectives about the Ministry of Culture’s actions, let alone opinions about what the government’s response should be, vary. Meneses Lozano, for example, supports Frausto’s decision to leverage her diplomatic power, but also believes that her letter is framed within a Westernized discourse that is part of the problem. Even assuming that communities like the Purépechas want anything more than credit is emblematic of how those in power speak on behalf of Indigenous groups. “Secretary Frausto’s actions are important, but it should be in synchronicity with the communities,” he believes. 

He views the Museum’s role in a similar context. “We are an interlocutor in this conversation. The voices of these communities,” he says, “need to be taken account of by the Secretary of Culture, the National Institute for Indigenous People, the National Institute for Anthropology and History, the Textile Museum. We need to realize that these issues don’t affect us in the same way.” 

To complicate matters even more, not all Indigenous artists are able to advocate for themselves within the public sphere when their livelihoods are taken advantage of. Speaking over the phone, Alejandra Mora, the Executive Director of the Textile Center for the Mayan World, an NGO in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, aimed at preserving and exhibiting Mayan textiles and involving the participation of their female artisans, explained that her organization has not “been able to participate that much in these issues because of a lack of resources–specialists, human resources, money, and time.”  

“We are lacking in methodology. There’s a lot of aspiration from young people who want to build a brand and work together with artisans–it seems glamorous–but the collaboration isn’t always simple. There needs to be a lot of respect but also a methodology towards how to work together. Because the collaboration isn’t the brand–it’s the intercultural relationship.” 

 In Bogotá, Alexander Parra Peña, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property, leads a government policy called Artesanias de Colombia, which seeks to apply legal tools to issues of cultural appropriation. The program is part of “Economia Naranja,” or “Orange Economy,” a pan-American initiative that uses intellectual property laws to protect a wide range of creative products, including fashion design, music, theater, architecture, gastronomy, and literature. 

Economia Naranja places a particular focus on art and design considered “ethnic,” or produced by Indigenous communities. “We counsel artisans and collaborators through documentation, negotiations, and drafting of contracts and private agreements anytime anyone wants to use something that belongs to an ethnic group. We do this in order to avoid situations exactly like the one that occurred with Marant,” said Parra Peña while speaking over the phone. 

Although Artesanias de Colombia has legal power within its own country, its lack of international jurisdiction means that, ultimately, ensuring that any entity complies with its protocols is impossible. By offering globalized standards, however, it attempts to give everyone a seat at the same table and a chance to speak the same language. In Guatemala, the Asociación Feminina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), a group comprised of 1,000 indigenous women weavers, has been working to legally trademark Mayan patterns within their own country since 2016. As noted by Toward Freedom, Maya weavers in Mexico have openly voiced their solidarity with AFEDES. Government authorities have announced the development of similar policies in Peru and Ecuador.  

Members of Mexican civil society are also finding innovative methods of protecting intellectual copyright of Indigenous artists while encouraging outsiders of seeking ethical collaborations. Based in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Viernes Tradicional is an initiative launched by Mexican NGO Impacto that promotes appreciation for and informed consumption of textiles created by local artisans. For Emiliano Villalba, the coordinator for Viernes Tradicional, understanding that engaging in cultural appropriation is distinct from just copying is at the crux of understanding the issue. “It’s not the same to say that something was copied or plagiarized as it is to say that something was appropriated—which is what Isabel Marant did. I want to be very clear about this.”

In August 2020, they organized a series of round tables, called “Entrelazando Voces,” on the issue of cultural appropriation. Mediated by anthropologist Marta Turok, Xunka Hernandez, founder of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida, a textile cooperative for Tsotsil women in Zinacantan, Chiapas, and Impacto’s former director, Adriana Aguerrebere, the attendees of Entrelazando Voces generated a list of prescriptions for those looking to work with Indigenous communities. The guide, called Decálogo: Saber Artesanal Textil, includes ten steps that collaborators must take to ensure business relationships that are fair, ethical, and just. 

“The first step in an ethical relationship is allowing these communities to make their own informed decisions about whether they want to take part in collaborations or not,” says Villalba over the phone. “People who show up to these communities have to show respect, and not just view these makers as maquiladoras that can produce items for them.” 

Viernes Tradicional views the Decalogo as a collective tool. Because it is still in the process of being written and edited, it is available as a PDF via solicitation from the organization directly. 

On November 6, Secretary Frausto again published a letter on her Twitter. This time, it was the response from Isabel Marant and her Director General, Anouck Duranteau-Loeper. In the letter, the brand offers Secretary Frausto an apology. “If the House of Isabel Marant, and with it, its founder, have shown a lack of respect to the Purépecha community as well as to Mexico, the country that you, Minister, represent, we offer our sincerest apologies.” Before concluding, the letter says the House remains at the Secretary’s disposition to take the next steps in its redress. For Secretary Frausto, this is a huge win. Whether the Mexican government takes legal action, or demands a more robust response from brands in the future, remains to be seen.

Isabel Marant
Cultural Appropriation
indigenous rights