From Culture to Catwalk Couture: Roots and Ripoffs in Mexican Fashion

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 5.50.05 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Remember “la Malinche”? The Nahua woman from the Isthmus who aided and abetted Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico? She’s responsible for the word malinchismo, the preference for all things foreign—an apt characterization of the state of Mexicanfashion. Until very recently, it was definitely not chido (cool) to buy your clothes “hecho en Mexico.”

Hecho en Mexico: Not so much!
 Not that “made in Mexico” means a lot in terms of Mexican fashion. Clothing and textiles make up only 6% of Mexico’s Gross National Product, although the sector provides 20% of all Mexican manufacturing jobs. In 2013, Mexico exported $5.5 billion (USD) in clothing, the operative word being “exported.” Most of Mexico’s clothing industry is geared to exports of low- and moderate-cost clothing primarily to the U.S. Under NAFTA, the U.S. exports textiles to Mexico, which are returned to the U.S. in the form of clothing. Veracruz and Campeche host centers of clothing manufacture; the average wage is $1.70 U.S. an hour.

Given the emphasis on export in the clothing/textiles sector, only about 40% of clothing bought in Mexico is made in Mexico. It is also a matter of that malinchismo preference for foreignfashion. In 2013 the U.S. cotton industry asked Mexico City shoppers where they went to buy their clothes, and 61% preferred Mexican stores. Liverpool was the most popular destination (19%), followed by two other Mexican chains, Aldo Conti (10%) and Suburbia (8%). (Note that Liverpool was founded in 1847 by a Frenchman who sold European clothing out of boxes on the street in Mexico City; the goods were shipped in through Liverpool, England.) However, the same 61% that preferred Mexican stores actually bought clothes the stores had imported; the only Mexican brands noted were Oggi Jeans (muy chido), and Aldo Conti’s upscale, Italian-look-and- feel clothing lines.

As for high fashion, remember that haute couture is about way more than just clothes. According to social historian Joan DeJean, the roots of glamorous taste can be traced back to Louis XIV (The Essence o fStyle: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour!). In Mexico City, Avenue Presidente Masarykinthe exclusive Polanco neighborhood boasts all of this and more.

Should you be from Germany, you can shop Hugo Boss and Porsche. Switzerland? Bally and Mont Blanc. France has set up shop with Chanel, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Hermés, Catimini, and Roche Bobois, while Spain offers CH (Carolina Herrera) and Zara Fashion Boutique. And the avenue is overrun with Italian stores: Salvatore Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Ermenegildo Zegna, Bulgari, Intimissimi Italian Lingerie, Max Mara, Diesel, Etro. Believe me, there’s more—even a few, oops!—affordable U.S. chains like Starbucks and Banana Republic. You can finally figure out you’re in Mexico when you pass a branch of the Palacio de Hierro (founded by a Frenchman in the 1850s, originally called Las Fábricas de Francia, still carries a global fashion lineup).

Making Mexican Fashion Mexican

As Mexico’s middle class grows (by almost 9% from 2000 – 2011), its fashion industry is trying to build demand. And some designers believe that Mexican fashion will distinguish itself by using the traditional roots of indigenous garb to create uniquely Mexican haute (maybe moyen) couture, although no one’s advocating Frida Kahlo’s wholesale adoption of Tehuana costume to signify female power (see “What Frida Wore: Tehuanas in Charge?,” The Eye, March 2015).

Mexican fashion will always have designers who emulate international fashion trends, but the number who want to build on traditional foundations is increasing. First came Armando Mafud, who started thirty years ago to use colors and motifs drawn from early 20th-century artists (Rivera, Tamayo, Morales), as well as traditional textiles, especially Tehuana embroidery. “I try to convey the culture of my country through clothing. The roots of my country, all that is Mexican art I try to convey.”

Carla Fernández, in a 2015 interview with online news site Fusion, takes a slightly different tack. She “deconstructed hundreds of traditional patterns trying to understand the untold history of Mexican clothing [and] discovered that all indigenous designs were based on squares and rectangles.” The use of the underlying shapes taught her that “we could create our own trend, based on our own tradition.” While the shapes are the essence of Fernández’ most striking designs, her involvement with tradition is much greater. In 2013, she won the Netherlands’ Prince Claus award for “documenting, preserving, revitalising and bringing to contemporary relevance the rich textile heritage of Mexico’s indigenous communities.” She works closely with communities in southern Mexico on traditional designs and techniques, collaborating with them to transform tradition into cutting-edge fashion.

Yakampot is a partnership between young businesswoman Concepción Orvañanos and designer Francisco Cancino; it grew out of Orvañanos’ first business, the children’s handmade clothing firm Arroz con Leche. The company works with “highly-skilled and talented women” in Yakampot, Chiapas (northwest of San Cristobal de las Casas), to develop designs that are “helping preserve and position the traditional textile-making techniques of the country’s indigenous communities.”

When asked in a recent interview by ProMéxico, a business promotion organization, why Yakampot incorporates traditional fabrics and textile-making techniques, Cancino answered, “We believe Mexican textiles represent a cultural heritage on which you can’t put a price. Each community in Mexico has its own traditional dress and ancestral textile- making techniques. We focus on finding ways of rescuing and preserving these techniques. We want to help improve life for the women who work with us, their families and their communities.”

Cultural Appropriation, Consumption, and (In)Digestion

Not everyone who seeks to build on Mexican design and tradition goes the collaborative route. “Cultural appropriation” has lost its original academic intent, which involved a more dominant culture taking “creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices” from a more marginalized culture, usually with an element of exploitation, if no tracism. (One of the first examples identified was the American minstrel show, which caricatured African-American traditions for comic effect.)

Feminist author Gloria Jean Watson (better known as bell hooks) calls it “eating the Other”—the “other” being how anthropologists describe the object of their study, they are “other” than, and probably inferior to, “us.” For bell hooks, eating the Other turns what is consumed into a commodity, it is how “one asserts power and privilege.” Wikipedia notes that hooks’ influences include Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose 1970 work Pedagogy of the Oppressed lays out “critical pedagogy”: a consciousness-raising (conscientização) process that allows the oppressed, using their own traditions, to define themselves in opposition to the oppressors and take action to improve their situation.

The idea becomes clear and relevant when the fashion industry appropriates design and textile patterning and makes a boat load of money offit. (In “first-world” countries, there’s an extensive body of intellectual property law that prevents such activity.)

New York designer Mara Hoffman,
who claims on her website to travel
for inspiration, titled her Spring
2012 collection “Mara Mexicana.”
The online style website
Fashionista loved the show, noting
that Hoffman drew inspiration
from the bright colors of Frida
Kahlo’s paintings, but the
“cheerful patterns and colors
undoubtedly channeled the designer’s personal life.” Oh, Fashionista, how benighted! Mara’s work makes liberal use of Otomi embroidery patterns, among other traditional patterns, in all sorts of beachwear, including bikinis never even conceived of in Tenango, Hidalgo, center of Otomi creations. For 2016, you can still buy sexy bathing suits with serape stripes, but Hofmann has largely moved on to Africa and the Middle East. Lots of camels in the catalog.

Perhaps the most notorious case is French designer Isabel Marant’s blouse from her Etoile collection, partly because Oaxacan singer Susana Harp noticed the blouse and tweeted twin photos of Marant’s blouse and the traditional costume of the Mixe women of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec (in the Sierra Norte, northeast of Oaxaca de Juárez).

Marant is a French designer who creates
designs that are “tribal without being too
literal.” Not quite the case with the Mixe
blouse. Not to mention the matching
mini-skirt. At the moment, the women of
Tlahuitoltepec are claiming she has
committed plagiarism by using “graphical
elements specific to the Tlahuitoltepec
 blouse,” which has been made the same way for 600 years. Marant’s version is not a “novel creation as is affirmed by the designer.” While you can buy the blouse in Tlahuitoltepec for about $300 mxn, Marant is charging about $4,500 mxn. Through the municipal officials of Tlahuitoltepec, the women are asking Marant’s company for damages, and mention the possibility of further legal action.

The Mexican claims are in addition to a set-to between another French label, Antik Batik, and Marant over the very same embroidered blouse, with Antik Batik claiming to “own” the design. A Paris court found Marant not liable because she didn’t claim to own the design; rather it was “inspired by the traditional patterns of the Tlahuitoltepec,” so Antik Batik couldn’t own them either.

As for the women of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, they’re still having their consciousness raised. Marant’s lawyer for the Antik Batik case says the blouse is “not a copy, it’s an inspiration.” In an argument that truly misunderstands cultural appropriation, the attorney noted that “In this village,” there are “plenty of designs that deal with the same vocabulary.”

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