Judging by viral stories on social media one might think cultural appropriation is a relatively recent problem but indigenous designs in fashion have been plagiarized so often that one Mexican designer is working to give artisans the credit they deserve.
Adriana Pavón grew up with a love of fashion that has guided her career since she was 16 years old. Born in Mexico City, she was one of the younger siblings which meant she was given hand-me-down clothing. She felt acutely aware of the tattered state of the materials. She grew up visiting her extended family who worked in manufacturing apparel production services for the fashion industry in Los Angeles and this exposure sparked a lifelong love for fashion and design.
“I remember as a young person spending time at the ‘maquiladora’ visiting my family… Asking my cousins to let me use the industrial machines because I didn’t want to look shabby,” she told HipLatina.
This exposure to the behind-the-scenes world of how garments are made is now the basis for her lifelong mission to give the artisans the recognition they’re lacking.
She grew up in Los Angeles, one of the fashion capitals of the world, and it gave her the opportunity to learn about the process of garment making on a larger scale. She began consulting services for designers and for more than 25 years she’s dedicated herself to helping designers from the concept stage to production. She established herself in Detroit where she won the 2009 Fashion in Detroit designer award and in 2015 she launched a Kickstarter to help fund a collection she’d design that reflects the beauty of Mexico. That same year she launched Mexico Cultura y Orgullo (MCO), an initiative to aid indigenous artisans in conceptualizing, producing, and selling their designs.
The Kickstarter raised more than $12k, exceeding their $10k goal, but then the 2017 Chiapas earthquake hit, with a magnitude of 8.1 it left dozens dead and was considered the strongest quake in Mexico in a century. Artisans lost everything and the money went toward helping rebuild and they were able to aid 100 ‘bordadoras” to regain employment.
“When I first started the project it was more of a creative endeavor and personal and cultural mission of not wanting my culture to suffer appropriation,” the 43-year-old fashion designer, entrepreneur, and cultural consultant said. ”Having the skills and experience in the industry and having suffered plagiarism myself I felt I could contribute so much to the communities.”
MCO offers three separate programs: Mexican Lab, the Mexican Hub, and Mexican Pro, each providing resources for entrepreneurs. The Lab is an annual program for socially conscious entrepreneurs, the Hub is an inclusive artistic center in Oaxaca that can be used to exhibit local work, and the Pro represents Mexican talent through cultural events and platforms in various categories including art, design, and music.
“If we have the ability to promote and continue the legacy of our ‘antepasados’ it’s an important role to take to continue our tradition and continue to keep our culture alive. ‘Somos la trascendencia de nuestros ancestros’,” she said. She also emphasizes that even those who can’t attend MCO events can contribute by sponsoring or “adopting” artists.
They work with over 80 collectives across Mexico and their representatives, some as small as three people in the organization and others as large as 120. Summer and winter classes are open to all artists free of charge and it doesn’t require that they be associated with MCO, they just need to commit to completing the three-week course.
Some of the artisans they work with include Delfina Carmona, who embroiders blouses and loves cooking so they help her promote her organic coffee and clothing, Alberto Valenzuela, a renowned master of hand made paper and product development whom they helped curate a series of partnership with artists, and Jacobo y Maria Ángeles in San Martín Tilcajete who work on textiles and they helped promote their work to high profile clients.
Her efforts through MCO are meant to put the power back in the hands of Mexicans artisans in the face of globalization. She’s recruited professionals in various sectors to help them showcase their talents on a global scale.
In June of this year, fashion house Carolina Herrera was called out by Alejandra Frausto, the cultural minister of Mexico in a formal letter addressed to the Venezuelan designer (though she’s no longer creative director) and Wes Gordon, the current creative director, for “cultural appropriation.” She was referring to the 2020 collection that featured Mexican indigenous patterns and embroidery techniques, which Gordon stated were inspired by Herrera’s Venezuela roots and a “Latin Holiday,” according to the New York Times.
In 2018 a Utah-based online retailer named Mexitrend sparked an outcry when it used the hashtag #whitegirlswearmexican to promote their imported Mexican products.
“We’re selling to white people,” John Jonas, husband of owner Kimberly Claybaugh Jonas said in an interview, reported My San Antonio. “Fewer people would buy if the dress is on a Mexican model, it’s a lifestyle thing — you see people that are similar to you, that’s how everybody works.” Their website and Instagram are no longer active.
But it doesn’t stop there, fashion house Givenchy also was under fire for a Fall 2015 show described as “Chola Victorian.”
“The subject of cultural appropriation and plagiarism toward the indigenous communities is not unique to Carolina Herrera. Over 18 well-known brands have done similar things in recent years,” Pavón said in a statement following the controversy. “It’s challenging to legislate or protect the intellectual property of vulnerable communities because it’s a complex issue, but it’s something consumers can easily resolve by asking for accountability of the brands they choose to support.”
Pavón tells HipLatina that fast fashion and imports from China flood the market and globalization coupled with a lack of information about the source of a product only makes things worse. She shared that they’ve been providing information and resources for Google Mexico as they develop a digital catalog of all the textiles in order to combat appropriation.
She emphasizes that the only way to combat the proliferation of culturally appropriated goods is to buy directly from the artisan. Some of the shops she recommends are Ihkiti for handmade wool items, El Camino de Los Altos for bedding and textiles, and Mariana Grapain for wearable art and textiles. She’s also working on opening a mercado in October in Oaxaca with products by local artists.
MCO also sells trip packages where guests can visit tallers (workshops) of local artisans in Oaxaca and experience a local event. They’re currently offering a Dia de los Muertos and Guelaguetza. The trips are a form of fundraising so that they can continue to mentor and aid the indigenous communities and it allows them to purchase equipment they can use when selling to Europe and Japan.
Pavón also dreams of showing a collection inspired by the iconic Frida Kahlo and is currently searching for a space to exhibit, after years of having to put it off, she believes it’ll be completed by next year. Many of the initial designs were ruined during the quake which also contributed to the delay.
“The collection seeks to give a deeper look into the culture we associate with Frida. The Zapotec community is beautiful as it’s complex,” she explained. “I’m open to invites to exhibit the work since the idea is for the public to meet the actual artists, the bordadoras. I’m just the designer who facilitated the canvas where the artwork is showcased.”
They are now launching a campaign of creative exchanges in October where they’ll sponsor artisans visits to the U.S., specifically in Detroit, Ohio, and Michigan that’ll include workshops about plagiarism and their work, along with a meet and greet during an Expo sale.
“In recent years there has been a narrative that is painting a picture of our culture from a lack of perspective. Instead of letting others tell their negative version of who we are, I wanted to show from my point of view and first-hand experiences of the journey,” she said. “The love for my country, my heritage and future generations are what inspires me to continue the work.”