By Deborah Van Hoewyk
On Thursday, October 20, 2022, author and Mexican First Lady Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller Instagrammed American designer Ralph Lauren:
Hey, Ralph, we already knew that you’re a big fan of Mexican designs, above all those that work with our ancestral cultures to preserve textile traditions. However, by copying these designs you commit plagiarism, and as you know, plagiarism is illegal and immoral. At least acknowledge it. And I hope you compensate the damage to the native communities that do this work with love and not for million-dollar profits.
Gutiérrez was calling out Lauren for his use of Mexican serape fabric in a cardigan-style jacket in his current line of clothing; she mentioned specifically the weavers from Contla de Juan Cuamatzi in Jalisco and Saltillo in Coahuila as the “authors” of the textile design of the cardigan.
This was not the first time, either. Ralph Lauren has made a mint by refining the looks of the New England preppie, early-Hollywood glamour, and the rough-and-rustic American West. It was hardly a skip or a jump when his collection for Spring/Summer 2013 was described, by The New York Times, as showing there was “no doubt Ralph Lauren was down Mexico way.” Lauren again showed serapes in his Fall 2014 collection, when he added a Polo Ralph Lauren collection for women that included a Mexican-patterned maxi dress and a serape-fabric jacket.
Gutiérrez clearly sees Lauren’s use of the serape fabric as cultural appropriation. She identifies his work as plagiarism, i.e., an exact copy, and asserts that it has damaged the indigenous communities, whose work is a labor of love that preserves ancient traditions, because Lauren did not acknowledge or compensate them. Lauren no doubt considered it cultural appreciation – if he considered it at all.
A repeat offender like Lauren, Marant included a cape clearly taken from the Purépecha of Michoacán in her 2020-21 Etoile collection. Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, the Mexican Minister of Culture, sought an explanation:
Some symbols [on the cape] that you took have a profound meaning for this culture. These symbols are very old and have been conserved thanks to the memory of the artisans. I ask you, Ms. Isabel Marant, to publicly explain on what grounds you privatize a collective property … and how its use benefits the creator communities.
In 2021, Frausto Guerrero accused several other fashion brands of wrongly appropriating designs from three Oaxacan towns. US-based Anthropologie took embroidery patterns representing the sun, the mountains, and the maguey cactus preserved by the Mixe of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, and slapped them on fringe-edged shorts no Mexican woman would ever wear. The Spanish retailer Zara made a light green dress with dark green embroidery patterns unique to the Mixtec weaving cooperatives of San Juan Colorado. Internet-based retailer Patowl was selling blouses with elaborate embroidery characteristic of the Zapotec community in San Antonio Castilla Velasco.
Protecting All Cultural Expression
These events foregrounded the need for legal protection of Mexico’s indigenous cultural heritage from the “plagiarism” of appropriation. According to Andrea Bonifaz of the social justice organization Impacto Social Metropolitan Group, which defends the rights of traditional artisanal communities against cultural appropriation, the underlying problem is that “ancestral expressions, like the serape, are collective.” Laws protecting patrimony cover individuals, not communities. “Who or what the community is,” and therefore who can bring suit, is never defined.
However, some progress has been made. In 2020, following the Herrera resort-wear confrontation, Mexico changed the federal copyright law to specify that native communities – if the community has taken the steps to organize as a collective – own the intellectual property rights to craftwork that expresses cultural and local popular tradition. As owners of their work, they can oppose unauthorized use, even when that use altered the original design. In 2021, the Mexican senate passed a federal law that established penalties for taking – by reproducing, copying, imitating, or otherwise appropriating without prior and proper authorization – the designs that represent indigenous cultural heritage, including that of Afro-Mexicans.
These legislative changes set up a legal framework and a registry to recognize cultural expressions, identify the owners of those expressions, and establish the protocols for owners to authorize any permitted use. Mexico’s Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI, manages patents and trademarks) and the Copyright Office (INDAUTOR) give classes for indigenous communities and individual artisans on intellectual property, explaining how to protect their rights to their work. They also give discounts to the artisans or collectives for registering ownership of their work.
From Appropriation to Appreciation
Is it ever okay to use the cultural assets of another people? Vogue India, prompted by Sarah Jessica Parker’s costume in the “Diwali” episode of And Just Like That, asks “How do you know if you are co-opting cultural connotations or innocuously borrowing an aesthetic?”
It’s a longstanding debate, but the answer, actually, is yes, you can appreciate rather than appropriate (see Brooke O’Connor’s article on page 26). Vogue India came up with a rather narrow answer – you have to avoid “demeaning” the culture from which you have taken something. This is a backward way of saying you have to respect, to recognize, to acknowledge the culture that produced it. Vogue India quotes Kelvin Gonclaves, owner of Elkel, an “avante-garde” boutique in the Soho neighborhood in New York City:
If your action disrespects the original idea because of cultural, religious or other customs, then you’ve gone too far. If you claim it as yours without giving credit, you’ve definitely gone too far. There are a few things that should never be done like blackface or dreadlocks on a white person. With taste and acknowledgement, though, most things can be done.
Gonclaves thinks that all art, fashion included, “borrows inspiration from other cultures [to create] new and wonderful things.”
The Gray Area of Inspiration
The designers Mexico has accused of cultural appropriation have said their work is “inspired” by Mexican “ideas.” That may well be so, but it doesn’t determine whether or not they have created something “new and wonderful.”
Take a look at a sweatshirt recently stocked at both Nordstrom and Gonclaves’ boutique:
Billed as a “Gender Inclusive Keith Haring Witches Print Cotton Blend Sweatshirt,” it’s sold out at Nordstrom. According to Nordstrom, the sweatshirt and matching sweatpants were “produced in collaboration with the Keith Haring Foundation” and “creatively showcases the late artist’s iconic designs.” There is no mention that Haring produced the designs forty years ago, or that they were inspired by ancient Mexican hieroglyphic writings and low-relief sculptures.
Keith Haring (1958-90) was a New York “street artist” whose early work, inspired by the graffiti subculture of the early 1980s, was considered pop art, and Haring was very much a part of the pop art scene. In 1982, he was approached by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who were very much a part of the same scene in England, to prepare designs on the theme of “Witches” for one of McLaren’s albums (Duck Rock) and McLaren/Westwood’s fashion line. By 1983, Haring had produced the Witches series of drawings, but never credited any specific Mexican sources.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987; he set up the Keith Haring Foundation to preserve and promote his work, and to raise funds for those affected by AIDS. The Foundation licensed the sweatshirt and pants as a fundraising activity. It can easily be argued that the Witches sweatsuit is “inspired” by Mesoamerican designs, that Keith Haring did not “appropriate” any specific work, and that he created something “new and wonderful.” But a little mention of how he came to use his Mexican inspiration might have been nice.