Mexican Fashion Week?….or more indigenous artisan exploitation?

This past Fall there was a bit of NEWs buzz about Mexican fashion designers during Fashion Week in Mexico. After viewing the slide show and reading the following article I have to make a statement about what I feel about the exploitation of traditional costumes and the artisans who have created them. The women weavers and embroiderers, whose work has been cut up up and pieced into some other garment in the name of fashion – are the real artists, whether they call themselves that or not, and whether they are credited by so-called designers.

In the article called “Indigenous Fashion hits the Runway”  you will see pictures about what’s new and cool in Mexican fashion, and you might possibly identify Tehuantepec embroidery embellishing many clothes while older Isthmus huipil pieces have been patch-worked to create rather ‘minimal’ pieces of clothing. Far from the original ‘covered up’ and modest, but elegant, look of traditional traje these fashion statements are more than a bit vulgar to my textile researchers eye.

What is somewhat disturbing is the rather cavalier and self-absorbed attitude of the designers featured. In the designer statements there is no mention or acknowledgement about where these textiles originated or who the women are who made them. Whoa and how disrespectful is that? Not everyone mentioned in the article was as callous as the designers and there was even a comment toward the end, by one of the artisans,, who said that, ‘they are hardly paid anything for their work anyway’.

So what do you think? – Fashion or more insult to artists/artisans? You decide……. but I have to include the YouTube video by Lila Downs whose mother is from the Mixteca/Oaxaca and who wears  traditional textiles when she performs. Some of these have been cut skin-tight to show her voluptuous figure but in no-way degraded to little patches of antique cloth to cover up breasts. In this video the Zapotec women of the Valle Central of Oaxaca, are also featured with their feminine dresses. rebozo head-wraps and aprons. Hooray!  Somehow this shows much more respect for Mexican indigenous culture, traditional textiles, and the artisans who spend many hours/days creating them. Thanks Lila!


10 thoughts on “Mexican Fashion Week?….or more indigenous artisan exploitation?

  1. Using traditional fabric in a modern application is nothing new. And it would be unusual for the fashion industry to share some of their aclaim with the anonymous indigenous artisans who contributed to the new ‘creations’. The fashion world is geared for the ‘elite and upper crust’ of society. In Mexico, most of these members despise the indigenous societies where these textiles often originate. To offer them acknowlegement would be allowing them a more equal footing. I have certainly seen far more egregious use of indiginous weaving. Twenty years ago there were already individuals, in Guatemala for example, buying up the old huipils, belts and other clothing articles and cutting them up to decorate leather bags, duffles bags, purses and other hippie-chic articles. And the buying was not limited to fragements but to complete textiles which should have been destined for conservation in private and public collections. The same thing is going on in Bolivia and Peru. Of course these are not art lovers who do this but persons of commerce seeking a new market with old products.

    • Thanks Thomas for your comments! Exactly what I wanted!!! I’m putting this out there to see what people think. Since I’m very interested in the Tehuana costume and how it’s embellishment has evolved over the years, of course the cutting up of these costumes is going to make me wince….and yes I know that it’s happening all over the world not just Mexico.
      There’s no harm in encouraging designers to educate their customers about the creators of the textile they use…how about getting a bit more PC people? Maybe buyers will seek out the REAL THING the next time and learn something about their heritage. Of course in Mexico this is a leap forward as 30 years ago very few fashionistas would even think of touching an indigenous persons garment. Now the upper society are in competition for the most exquisite of huipiles from Oaxaca. Soon I’ll write an article about Remigio Maestas and his work supporting weavers to do those most elaborate and finest traditional weaving in Egyptian cotton and fine silk. His work is promoting them as ARTISTS they are and organizing exhibits to encourage them. I think one of his exhibits is now in Japan, and that culture certainly appreciates fine textiles.

  2. OMG. So serious.!!!!!! The idea of the fashion designer is to promote the essence of wearable art. Because they are using the embroidered art of their indigenous cultures is an appreciation for their value as art.
    If the designer manages to spike some interest in an inventive way is better for everyone. Their use in a contemporary way is another form of art in fashion.
    Really not everyone is going to wear indigenous apparel.
    I don’t think this is as big a moral issue to the artisans themselves.
    Of coarse not all of the new embroidery is as precious as the forerunners of this artistic expression.
    Anyone who is interested in a contemporary version of an artisan fashion will seek more information or be inspired to seek out the origins.
    Fashion is, after all, how we see the world now.
    Would it be controversial to cut all the pieces of a coat or shirt and then have it embroidered before it is sewn togeather?
    Artisan garments only become valuable after time passes and not all are in the precious catagory.

    • Jay the whole idea of this post is to spark conversation. If you are a fashion person, of course you are right. But if you have been in the poor villages working with the artisans then you might have a different perspective. Artisan women spend days making say a yard of embroidery and probably will get 200p + $15 if they are lucky (average base labor wage in Mexico is $100P a day) = ($6-7US) so $15 is good because she can take care of the kids and make the food (no food processors sorry) and make a little more in a week than her husband’s daily wage. Well you figure it out. The garment goes for $750 – $1110 and the designers get the whole credit. I’m just saying it’s about Fair Market value for their contribution. Yes, and we do exploit workers all over the world – but the difference is they don’t have a choice and we do. And of course not everyone is going to wear a huipile but at least they might be made aware of what goes into making one and where their little fashion ’embellishments’ are coming from. This is my job!
      (FYI – I had a textiles design business in San Francisco for 20 years and this is is a next step – education of those who might like to know more about traditional textiles! Pretty soon it’s not going to be worth the artisan’s effort to embroider anything – probably in the next 10 years when the iPhone factory comes to their neighborhood!)

      • I’m not a fashion person, I’m an artist.
        I’ve LIVED and worked in Morocco and Indonesia and have been inspired by the character of the culture I’m living in.
        The reason being that the society we live in here in America has vey little culture to offer except that of promoting the over evaluated and ever inflating value of the dollar and the virtue of youth and sex.
        Well maybe one cannot overvalue youth. LOL
        Those people in Oaxaca will always be embroidering because it’s part of there cultural heratige and identity. If they haven’t gone to Walmart and bought a pair of skin tight polyester knit pants and a crop top to cover their robust figures, they are not going to do so in the future.
        Those kinds people live in metropolitan areas and are victims of non cultural identity.
        As well, I have found that the peoples that have a cultural identity stand against the corporate neutering and dehumaniization of their local cultural populations. I don’t think they will give up on embroidery or weaving.

        We do however agree that the problem is with the people who buy this stuff and bring it back and sell it for enormous markup so they can buy a BMW and an overvalued house and live on credit cards and give nothing back.
        Quite frankly that is what America has to offer the world.
        Fraud, corruption, manipulation of the global economy for the few,

        “Money for nothing and chicks for free”, so says ZZ Tops.

        Sorry if I offended you.

  3. Gracias, mi amiga, for the discussion. Bottom line, be it fashion design, the high tech industry, and everything in between, it is the economic exploitation of a “cheap” indigenous workforce that is the heart of the issue; no thought to “fair trade” and respect. The bottom line IS the bottom line and it makes me sad and angry.

    • Thanks Shannon for your comments. Yes, actually our consumer culture certainly doesn’t want to look too deeply into how our wonderful products are made and by whom. As long as it’s new and shiny and will distract us for 15 mins …and it makes us look cool…then we have to have it! Unfortunately the Free Market model isn’t working but I don’t think anybody wants to WAKE UP out there.� Sheri Brautigam

  4. I agree with arguments on both sides of this discussion…it is a complex issue with no easy answer re. wages and respect of native traditions.

    As for culture degradation, a friend who has worked many years in Chiapas with indigenous people once said to me, “The indigenous people see the commercial work they do for us as work, like going to a job every day. What we do with their product doesn’t matter to them as they have their own vibrant work that they do for themselves.” In my experience working with indigenous artisans, I would tend to agree. As for cutting up tired traditional garments and repurposing them, when I ask the indigenous women we work with what they do with their old and spoiled clothing, they tell me they throw them away. Why not preserve these remnants and enlighten the consumer with something that is both beautiful, cultural, AND functional?

    It is our mission to create sustainable employment at fair wages for indigenous artisans doing what they do best, the traditional crafts of their respective villages. It is a long road, fraught with problems on both sides of the equation, one that requires time, patience, and cultural sensitivity. There is no excuse for not acknowledging the contributions made by these people within the fashion industry, but that is another discussion.

    • Thanks Adele – I couldn’t have said it better and I hope you will let me post your comment in my main blog because I want everyone to read it….and continue the story with Part II. There is an upside to this discussion.
      As a collector/documentor of these textiles I also know there is a thriving secondary market for used costumes and textile and anyone who’s been to Oaxaca or San Cristobal,Chiapas sees used costumes in the tourist shops and at the markets. Old things are being resold. My concern, as you said, is in ‘not acknowledging (their) contributions within the fashion industry’.

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