A fashion show in Oaxaca exposes a legacy of appropriation colliding with gentrification.
Mexico and Mexican products, including mezcal and textiles, have been having an international ‘moment.’ It is amazing to see high-quality Mexican products around the world, which trigger passion and excitement for people, who often go on to pursue and “discover” the country for themselves. However this rapid expansion has put pressure on native producers, calling for scrutiny as to the intentions of brands and consumers. This also calls into question how socially sustainable the current local climate is, as more and more people flock to Mexico.
Cultural appropriation is the hot topic on social media as users pool resources to assess the plagiarism and mis-use of customs and practices. Recent headlines around appropriation came from the streets of Oaxaca. “El Universal” reported cries of “culture is not for sale!” and “cutting is not designing!” as artisans, from throughout the state, protested the plagiarism of their designs. The trigger for this reaction was the Mercedes-Benz fashion week, which began on the 17th of August 2022.
The extent to which designers profit from incorporating traditional designs without acknowledging their origins or fairly compensating communities is a growing issue. There have been numerous high profile examples where international fashion brands have appropriated traditional Mexican designs. Responding to these scandals, Mexican culture minister Alejandra Frausto, sent letters to the companies in question, asking each for a “public explanation as to how they could justify privatizing collective property”.
As a photographer I have often found my work used without permission or credit. The feeling when this happens cuts deep, even though these are mostly minor incidents. So I can only begin to imagine the sense of exploitation and disrespect communities feel when their designs are used out of context and without consent. Ironically, watchdog Diet Prada posted my image of Oaxacan designer Nereyda Charis without permission, juxtaposed with another high fashion example of appropriation to illustrate this issue.
What is the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Oaxaca?
Mercedes-Benz has been hosting fashion events in different cities of Mexico for over a decade. A representative via their official instagram page told me that their goal with these events is to “realise the aspirations of Mexican designers, with the aim of internationalising Mexican fashion. We are convinced that Oaxaca is an important part of this journey.”
Oaxacan talent Pompi García and national designers Alfredo Martínez, Kris Goyri, Lorena Saravia, and “Julia & Renata” took to the runway. Special recognition was given to Oaxacan designer Armando Mafud, celebrating his 42 years in the industry. The selection was made to represent the creative diversity of Mexico and boost a new history of fashion in the country.
According to Vogue, when Kris Goyri found out he would be staging his spring collection in an agave field in Oaxaca, he immediately thought of the agave flower, which went on to inspire his collection. “Born at the peak of the agave’s life,” Goyri explained after the show, “It is the blossoming of the plant that grows straight to the sky.”
Eduardo Lemon (GQ) described the event as important “because the time is long gone when both the media and the creators… were located in just two or three cities, centralizing resources and even views.” Hosting a major fashion event that highlights contemporary style from Oaxaca, alongside other top national designers, puts Oaxaca on the map for the fashion world.
However, a luxury event such as the fashion show, spotlights issues between the wealthy, elite section of society and the rest of the community. It brings to boiling-point the rumbling discontent that has been growing since Oaxaca became touted as one of the worlds’ “Top Cities,” bringing boutique hotels, bougie cafes and rising prices across the board. Real heat followed presentations by a new celebrity mezcal brand (Contraluz) and the showcase of Moravy, a clothing brand run by Ivette Móran, wife of Oaxacan governor Alejandro Murat.
The legacy of Indigenismo
Moravy, which has been selling since 2008, presented “Indigenous-inspired” garments during the fashion week. These pieces were made up of traditional embroidered panels sewn into more ‘fashion-forward’ dress shapes.The brand claims there was collaboration with artisans and that intentions were to “preserve cultural heritage.” However, the presentation was met with controversy, with many criticizing Moran for plagiarism and the exploitation of traditional textiles from Indigenous communities. It seems to be a common disconnect, that brands consider their appropriation a method of preservation, even when the affected communities do not acknowledge or desire this to be the case.
Following the Mexican revolution, the Mexican state began to explore the political ideology of ‘Indigenismo,’ which emphasizes the relationship between the nation state and Indigenous peoples. In the best case scenario, principles of Indigenismo are seeking to vindicate Indigenous cultural and linguistic differences, assert Indigenous rights, and seek recognition. However these principles are easily manipulated. Though followers of these policies claim to protect and relieve indigenous people, Indigenous communities are often romanticized and valorized. Rick A. López, author of “Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution,” wrote on the importance of acknowledging that Indigenismo did not emerge out of direct pressure from Indigenous communities, “but instead resulted from a distinct movement led by cosmopolitan nationalists inside and outside the government.”
According to Lopez, Indigenismo went hand in hand with a broad cultural reevaluation of handicrafts, known as arte popular. Before the Revolution, Mexico’s middle and upper classes, along with foreign visitors, had seen handicrafts as an embarrassing indictment of the purported backwardness of the Indigenous. The Centenario celebrations in 1921 to mark one hundred years of independence from Spain can be seen as the beginning of the public exhibition of handicrafts and their positive reevaluation into a national allegory.
The Centenario galvanized the indigenista movement led by José Vasconcelos as head of the newly formed Secretariat of Public Education and a group of politically motivated mural artists, including Frida Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera. In 1921 they hosted an exhibition of popular arts as a focus of the centennial celebrations. In “Indigenismo and the Limits of Cultural Appropriation”, Camilla Sutherland described the event as a self-conscious articulation of mexicanidad as rooted in rural popular culture, contributing to framing rural popular culture as specifically Indigenous. “What distinguished the post-revolutionary conceptualization and deployment of indigeneity was the weaving of living indigenous peoples and traditions into a larger discourse of populist nationalism.” As pure, original, and ‘authentic’, the Indigenous was always the starting point for modernization, but also excluded from it.
Despite the Centenario curators’ aspirations to exhibit objects of art, the installation leant more toward the presentation of anonymously produced handicrafts. The textiles in particular, completely covering the walls in some rooms, made it impossible to view and reflect on them as individual objects. Neither display cases nor information labels or texts concerning the artists were used. “Torn out of their original context, transferred and exhibited in a metropolitan museum, the normal manner of using these objects was not replaced by a museum presentation, but by a setting analogous with commercial display of objects up for sale. The ‘Mexican’ residing in the regional handicrafts is presented as ‘affordable’ for everyone.” Miriam Oesterreich The Display of the ‘Indigenous’ – Collecting and Exhibiting ‘Indigenous’ Artifacts in Mexico, 1920-1940.
Following the Centenario exhibitions, it became common practice amongst artists and the elite to collect ‘artifacts.’ Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are both examples of collectors that valued handicrafts as art, inspiring others to follow suit. Intellectuals ‘discovered’ their own country, much in the same way as a tourist, making these crafts more consumable. Traditional objects were transformed into souvenirs, losing their authentic purpose.
A century later, we are still struggling with the same discrepancy between optimistic ideals and the reality of people affected. Speaking with Oaxacan academics, even now, the lack of recognition for both the spiritual symbolism and sentiment behind Indigenous crafts, as well as the disregard for individual craftsmen (just a cog in the mill to make products) has ignited criticism. It is time for Indigenous voices to be heard.
The fashion disconnect
As the fashion show arrived in Oaxaca, artisans took to the streets setting up on the popular ‘tourist road’ of Alcala to draw attention to the appropriation of their designs and skills. A group of protesters painted slogans against the Moravy brand in Plaza San Jerónimo, where the store is located. However these were quickly removed by the Municipal Police.
“We want to tell [Morán] that she’s looting Oaxaca,” said a representative of the artisans’ collective Texturas de Oaxaca. Some protestors went as far as to say Governor Murat had used public funds to pay for publicity of his wife’s brand leading up to the fashion show. In response to this Murat stressed that this event was not brought by the government, “It was their (Mercedes Benz) initiative to come to Oaxaca.”
Speaking with Oaxacan poet and academic Tamara Leon, she said, “the negative reaction to the fashion expo was specifically due to the Governor’s wife and brand. Specific offense was caused by the fact that the governor’s wife used symbols of original textiles in an indiscriminate way. Huipiles can be read and have unique and established structures.” Leon described how the Murat’s have a long history of dispossession against the ‘original nations.’ Governor Murat’s wife “used the Yalalag huipil for the first Guelaguetza show this year, despite the fact that the entire Sierra Norte community had decided not to attend the celebrations in protest against the requirements of the authenticity committee and the lack of support for dancers.”
Moravay’s indiscriminate use of panels of Indigenous Oaxacan textile is a clear example of how crafts have been appropriated and made spiritually hollow in the pursuit of profit, in a field that has not given credit to the traditions and individuals involved. Speaking to local friends who work with textiles, they described Moravy as, ““A vile rudeness and lack of respect for artisans. How that Mrs. Ivett dares to take pieces of textiles and make her clothes.” (Xinaxi Lopez Charis)
As Culture Minister Frausto made clear when she called out the global fashion brands that had plagiarized Mexican design, the use of this imagery for capitalist earnings is privatizing collective property. She described how the appropriated designs reflected “ancestral symbols related to the environment, history and worldview of the community.” Designs like those used by Moravy are more than pretty, decorative additions to the front of a blouse. Leon explained “They have symbolic weight that comes from generations. Perhaps used for a wedding or funeral, or to wrap the dead. When the designs are used on the body of a naked model, or that the eagle representing wisdom is placed on the pubis of a model, it is shocking. It is very unconscious. Those symbols are important.”
Protestors from Yalalag said the way their designs had been used to make-up fashion items was “mutilation,” and that Moran’s actions showed a complete lack of respect to the history of their clothing.
Pompi Garcia is a Oaxacan designer, and was starring in the controversial fashion week. Talking to Noise Magazine he described recent examples of appropriation, similar to what Moran has been accused of. “The only thing they do is take a picture of a very large textile that they cut out and put it on the front of a dress, you are in the full extension of the word, MUTILATING the universe of these people.”
“Whenever I check my works they have something impregnated with Oaxaca. There is always a situation that links to my past and my memories in the design I make. Everything has a shape, a figure, a drop of mezcal that says I’m from the south. However, I was always able to understand the difference between my designs and those of the cultures around me.”
The backdrop of gentrification
The arrival of the Mercedes fashion show has been symbolic, not only of cultural appropriation, but also gentrification in Oaxaca.
Gentrification is controversial because it affects people at a neighborhood level, disrupting the familiar established ties of a place, creating a disorienting new locale. An influx of ‘expats,’ and ‘nomads’ has changed Oaxaca drastically, even more so since the pandemic. There are positive aspects such as increased revenue and job creation, but negative impacts need to be addressed. Changes are happening quicker than their full impact is being assessed.
Researchers with the Center of Social Studies and Public Opinion (CESOP) at the Oaxaca Congress say the number of foreign residents in the southern state has increased by more than 400% since 2000. According to the study, economic benefits brought by tourists and foreign residents have taken precedence over the preservation of traditional, social values and customs. Negative impacts include higher rents and food prices, noise pollution, forcing out of traditional businesses and symbolic dispossession. “Federal and state regulations that guarantee the balance between urban development and the protection of natural, historic, architectural, cultural and artistic heritage are urgently needed.” Mex News Daily
As Leon explained “foreigners from countries around the world, that have an advantageous currency exchange, have brought advantages and disadvantages by migrating outside their countries of origin as they seek a better quality of life. The tensions in Oaxaca are neither more nor less than in the other countries in which this post-pandemic phenomenon has been seen.”
Tensions between locals and foreigners grow from the perspective that Mexico is a ‘cheap’ alternative for living and working. This applies to starting a brand or hosting an event such as the Fashion Week. It is ‘easier’ to get something off the ground when bottom-line costs are low compared to some other countries. “The point is that due to economic inequality, events like this are cheaper in Mexico and cheaper in Oaxaca because they are not paid much. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the country with the social and economic inequality that has been going on for many years,” Leon further explained.
Furthermore Leon continued, “It is difficult to value something positive when it only benefits certain people who have been the same ones benefiting for many years. Because with these events there are no benefits to the social sectors of the population, I think the positive is only for a certain business sector. They benefit from design houses such as the Moravy brand who have many people working for them who offer food and scenery to the event, but belong to the same rulers and organizers of those events.”
Looking into the history of the indigenous craft market, Leon suggested I read the anthology ‘Canasta of Mexican Stories’ by Bruno Traven. First published in the 1920s (coinciding with the aforementioned Centenario) much of Traven’s work reflects on the Capitalist exploitation of Indigenous Mexicans, a subject that had not been explored at that time. According to writer Rolf Cantzen, Traven deserves credit for drawing public attention to issues of contemporary colonialism before they were part of the literary canon.
The story “Canasta” considers what happens when modernity confronts Indigenous productive capacity and priorities. A visiting couple get their recompense after they pursue making profits by exploiting an Indigenous family of weavers. The unnamed weaver explains how they can produce their work at a low-cost on a small scale. However, scaling up for the couples’ profit is not possible, leaving the couple to return to the USA with nothing, while the Indigenous family retains their traditional way of life.
Although the outcome in “Canasta” is not always the case, in Oaxaca, Indigenous customs have often confounded capitalist impositions. The government extensively backs corporate retailers and shows public appreciation for foreign investment, yet traditional market systems prevail. Diana Denham, author of “The Persistence of Indigenous Markets in Mexico’s ‘Supermarket Revolution’” wrote on how tianguis, indigenous markets held in public spaces, pool family labor. This way they can stay competitive with corporate retailers and offer flexibility in times when more commercial ventures fail. Fierce vendor activism also stakes out long-lasting claims to streets and plazas. Denham describes how this “constitutes a form of insurgent spatial planning, redistributing urban space from the uses prescribed by modernist planners (leisure and traffic flow).”
It is important to recognize the social importance of these markets as tianguis provide a living for many people while functioning as social spaces of dialogue and care. “Wrapped up in them are moments of dispossession and resistance, notions of sovereignty and self-determination, connections to place and identity, and ongoing encounters that determine who has the right to imagine, shape, and belong in urban spaces,” Denham writes.
Recent protests to the corporate and elite installment of the Mercedes Fashion Show fashion show, spoke to the same self-determination, demanding that people recognize the identity of the makers.
Minister Frausto issued a statement last autumn saying that Mexico would no longer tolerate the cultural appropriation of local designs without due credit. This statement was meant to shine a light on issues including “protecting the rights of native peoples who have historically been invisible.” Leon hopes that the “fair collaboration between creators and artisans could be a way to avoid cultural appropriation,” and in the specific case of the fashion show, “This event can be socially conscious if you take into account the historical context of textiles, how and why they have those symbols, and why it is devastating to mutilate them like this. It would help if designers acknowledged the original symbolism and significance of the textile.”
Hopefully the voices of local academics such as Tamara Leon, and recent political statements in the defense of local producers, will help inform how the future unfolds. It is a highly sensitive and complex situation that cannot be expected to find resolution without overcoming challenges. The generosity of the Oaxacan people is incredible to experience, but unfortunately it is easily exploited to the detriment of local people and their heritage. Whether appropriation is happening at a known or unknown level, it is important to push for education and transparency between local producers, brands and consumers to create ideal relationships based on honesty and clarity.