Carolina Herrera Is Confronting the Messy Reality of Cultural Appropriation

Mexico’s cultural minister, Alejandra Frausto, has accused the fashion house Carolina Herrera of culturally appropriating indigenous Mexican patterns and styles in its 2020 resort collection. In a letter sent to the brand Monday, Frausto cited a Saltillo serape pattern and embroidery belonging to communities from Tenango de Doria and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and requested, per NBC News, that the brand “publicly explain on what basis it decided to make use of these cultural elements, whose origins are documented, and how this benefits the (Mexican) communities.”

Since Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador was elected last July, he has touted plans to better support the country’s indigenous people; in his inauguration speech, he promised that “the poor come first,” a reference to his 2006 presidential campaign slogan. “We are going to govern for everyone, but we are going to give preference to the most impoverished and vulnerable,” he told a crowd of thousands of people in Mexico City’s Zócalo.

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The promise of the legislation that might follow the cultural ministry’s letter is exciting, if it really does protect the work of indigenous artisans, and provides real tools for them to receive fair wages for their labor. But it’s also likely to confront a messy reality, in which patterns that originated from specific regions and indigenous communities of Mexico have been completely decontextualized and, in the United States retail landscape, absorbed as “mainstream” motifs.

The cultural ministry letter was first reported by the Spanish daily newspaper El País; it was addressed to Wes Gordon, who took over as creative director after Herrera stepped down in 2018. Herrera herself is Venezuelan, and Gordon has said the collection was inspired by her “lifestyle” as well as a trip he took to Mexico with his husband, according to the New York Times.

But looking at the resort collection, I’m struck by how many of these textiles and motifs I’ve seen before. Urban Outfitters has sold out of its serape blankets, and the pattern is ubiquitous enough for Ralph Lauren to shill a button-up made out of it. You can find a block-y top with poofy sleeves and embroidered flowers, in the same vein of Herrera’s dresses, pretty much anywhere millennial women buy clothes. And Madewell recently started selling woven totes from the LA-based company Luz Collection—the kind sold in markets and by street vendors in Mexico City. (The bag description says they are woven by “indigenous Maya people in southern Mexico,” without further context.)

Since he was elected, AMLO has been talking about putting the needs of Mexican indigenous people at the top of his political agenda—although sometimes his commitment has appeared to be more for show. His party is reportedly at work on “legislation to protect indigenous communities from plagiarism and having their work used by others without receiving fair compensation,” according to NBC News. Any such legislation would be a much-needed first step in the long-standing fight to protect and recognize indigenous communities’ intellectual property. Still, like installing a dam in an ocean, it’s hard to imagine how to stop a problem that’s been ignored for so long.

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