The Impeachment Of Nike, Louis Vuitton And Oysho

If you Google “Hammock Bag from San Andrés Larráinzar, Chiapas”, you will find among the first photos a long cloth bag and two handles like braids that simulate a miniature hammock, with a palette of three or four colors. This item is offered in almost all the craft stores in the tourist town of San Cristóbal de las Casas for about 200 Mexican pesos (about 8 euros).

But if you go to the website of the Spanish company Oysho you will find one very similar to 799 pesos if you are in Mexico or 25 euros if you are in Spain. There is another almost identical one on the page of the American company Madewell, by J. Crew, at about $ 48 in the United States . And another one from the Italian company Marni, at 170 euros.

Finally, if you do the same search but add the name of Francisca Pérez Gómez, you will find the creator of the original model, a 39-year-old indigenous Tzotzil artisan who lives in the small town of San Andrés Larráinzar. There, she sells it for 350 pesos (about 14 euros).

Nike, Zara, Louis Vuitton, Isabel Marant, Carolina Herrera, Mango, Anthropologie, Patowl and Rhapsody are some of the brands that have been denounced for using indigenous designs in their products. And it is not only a claim on social networks: some of the governments of the affected countries have also officially asked brands for explanations.

The complex debate of cultural appropriation in the textile world entangles as many threads and braids as the bag of Francisca Pérez, an artisan who has been weaving since she was 9 years old. Pérez has never denounced cultural appropriation in social networks, but his opinion is the one that is rarely heard in this debate.

Your experience can illuminate many of the more complicated knots in the discussion. “I wanted to make my own designs,” Pérez says in his living room about that moment, 11 years ago,

Nor do you usually listen to so many other artisans from the region, such as the eight that EL PAÍS has visited in Tenejepa, in the Highlands of Chiapas (Mexico), in an area surrounded by corn crops. During the talk, the younger women with small children breastfeed and those with colored threads in their bags take the opportunity to advance a few more strokes of their looms.

Companies have an obligation to “consult the artisans,” says Viviana Girón López, a 36-year-old Tzetzal woman who learned to weave at 12. “They obtain designs with ease, copy them and make them industrially. , and that’s not right, it costs us a lot to finish a piece ”.

The tools to defend their designs from the green mountains of Tenejapa are scarce: the fight is not on Twitter, nor in diplomatic letters. There you just knit with patience and fingers crossed so that your bags or shirts are liked and sold. And so that they do not end up plagiarized in a catalog of some multinational.

This recurring issue in the world of fashion returned to the fore a month ago, when the Secretary (Ministry) of Culture of the Mexican Government sent a letter to Zara, in which it accused the Galician textile giant of privatizing a collective property , in this In this case, a woman’s dress almost identical to the traditional huipiles made by the Mixtec community.

From the world of fashion they recognize that cultural appropriation is a complex issue, but Pepa Bueno, director of the Spanish Fashion Creators Association (ACME), settles the debate like this: “The red line is plagiarism; but art and author fashion has always worked with the cultural codes of the country where it is developed and other countries ”.

In the letter, the Mexican government also pointed to two US companies, Anthropologie and Patowl. At the first time, for having traced an embroidery of the Santa María Tlahuitoltepec community on jeans shorts, while Patowl released floral blouses with motifs from the Zapotec people, in San Antonino Castillo Velasco. Previously, other international firms such as Louis Vuitton, Isabel Marant, Carolina Herrera, Mango and Rhapsody were accused.

“Art has to do with looking around you and, from there, developing a new discourse,” says Bueno. “But it has to be a new discourse,” he insists. The representative of ACME does not enter into assessing specific cases, since she does not know the pieces of clothing in which they may be inspired, but she does understand that any plagiarism of an indigenous people is especially reprehensible: “The underlying problem is the enormous exploitation of the that the indigenous people are subjected. More than 70% live in extreme poverty ”.

The Mexican State asked these international firms, through the letter, if they plan to redistribute part of the benefits to these communities as original authors of the designs. The Inditex group, to which the firm belongs and which has 415 stores in Mexico, refers to what was already stated at the time: “The design in question was in no way intentionally borrowed or influenced by the art of the Mixtec people.”

Pepa Bueno, also an art historian and specialized in design history, understands that if a designer draws on other cultures, he simply has to acknowledge it: “It is essential to specify that inspiration exists; that the source from which these reasons have been extracted be valued ”.

Bueno gives an example to Victorio & Lucchino, who without being gypsies showed the polka dot dress to the world: “Their work highlighted an aesthetic unknown to many,” explains the expert. But then where is the separation between inspiration and cultural appropriation? A question without a clear answer.

Exclusive designs
Francisca Pérez worked for many years weaving in workshops for designers in central Mexico and was somewhat frustrated by the appropriation of the designs there. “Many times the designers tell you ‘this design is just for me, you can’t sell it elsewhere,'” he recalls.

She then left those jobs to build an independent network of 80 artisans where today they all share designs and sell products without worrying about exclusivity. “I respect their work a lot,” he says regarding the designers, “but without the artisans, they can’t do anything”.

It was to one of those designers, Claudia Muñoz, that Pérez first showed the design of the hammock bag. A bag made on a backstrap loom , a pre-Hispanic technique in which white threads hang from one side to determine the dimensions of the piece, and then other colored threads are entangled there. Muñoz loved the idea of ​​the hammock bag 11 years ago, but also many artisans from neighboring towns who began to copy and reproduce it until it became iconic in Chiapas. “That makes me happy,” he says.

He has also heard a rumor that foreign companies sell identical versions, although he does not remember the names of the brands well, and does not seem to care too much. When asked if he knows the term cultural misappropriation, he answers “no”, simply. But by explaining what this concept means, the debate is no longer so indifferent to him.

“Big businessmen, big companies, have the opportunity to support artisans, and that’s the way it should be. But you see that that does not happen like that. I am not affected by [the copies] of the artisans, but I am talking about us as artisans ”. Pérez, a mother of four children, found in this work a way to survive, and sees in these copies of other artisans a way out of domestic violence and the poverty in which many of her companions live.

The great argument against using the concept of cultural appropriation is usually that culture flows, that it is never fixed, that it is always a constant exchange that takes elements from one and the other cultures to incorporate or re-signify them. To Francisca Pérez Gómez that seems obvious. Her life has been an exchange between her grandmother, her mother, a neighbor, a mother-in-law, a companion from another town or a group of artisans in another State of Mexico.

But cultural appropriation between equals is one thing and cultural misappropriation of a multinational company is quite another, he argues. The debate for her is not so much about intellectual property, but about inequality: while some have stores around the world, others weave to feed their children.

From the web to the political debate
The cultural misappropriation debate has multiple examples in the textile and indigenous world of Latin America: from the fabrics of Wayúus communities in Colombia that are sold in haute couture stores in New York; even the Gunas communities in Panama who denounced Nike in 2019 for copying their mola designs. Normally these complaints were made from civil society and social networks. But since Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power in 2018, the debate has entered politics.

In 2019, the Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto, sent a letter to designers Carolina Herrera and Wes Gordon denouncing improper cultural appropriation in one of their collections, taking traditional embroidery from Tenango de Doria (Hidalgo) and Tehuantepec (Oaxaca).

In response , the designers claimed that they were only “trying to showcase this magnificent cultural heritage.” And there were more letters: against Louis Vuitton for making chairs with Hidalgo embroidery; against the French designer Isabel Marant for a collection in which symbols of the Purépecha culture appear in Michoacán ; and the last ones already cited against Zara, Anthropologie and Patowl.

Frausto, in a telephone conversation with El PAÍS, says that before making each of these accusations he made sure that the companies were not working together with artisans from the region. “We are not interested in closing ourselves to the world, but building bridges of respect, from designer to designer, from you to you,” he clarifies. To foreign designers who say that plagiarism are actually tributes, he responds: “To the tributes, the honoree are invited.”

The Secretary of Culture of Mexico says that with the new letter strategy, more effective than the legal route, she has received very diverse responses. He says that Louis Vuitton promised to do a project with artisans from Oaxaca, and that Isabel Marant agreed to open a dialogue between the two in which the designer apologized.

In January, in addition, a Nike representative in Mexico told him that the company is working on a new tennis collection with symbols of the Day of the Dead, which will be launched in October. But before going to market, they want to follow the approval protocol that the Ministry of Culture indicates. “That request from Nike for me is already an achievement,” she says proudly.

A debate without easy ways out
Elk’anel . That is the translation of cultural misappropriation of a group of artisans from the town of Tenejapa, Chiapas. Elk’anelliterally means theft. “Theft or as a dispossession,” explains Imelda Gómez, a 29-year-old woman from there. She is not an artisan but works in the Mexican NGO Impacto that seeks alternatives to protect indigenous cultural heritage and also commercially promote traditional fabrics in a more fair way.

“Some words [like cultural misappropriation] don’t have much impact on these women, because they are created from the Western world,” explains Gómez. Impacto, based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, is one of the few organizations in Mexico that tracks cases of cultural misappropriation by Mexican and foreign companies: since 2014, they have identified more than 40.

Andrea Bonifaz, from the same NGO, a 32-year-old activist from Aguascalientes, has been thinking for a long time about how to solve the problem of cultural appropriation from the legal, political or social point of view. Although technically any artisan can register the intellectual property of their work, very few do. Regarding the letters from the Government, Bonifaz considers that they have helped to put the debate in the spotlight, although the artisans have not yet been given a voice.

And he wonders: “What about Mexican or Latin American brands that also incur that?” The Ministry of Culture, for the moment, has only made public the fight against the most famous multinational brands.