The stakes in the current debate around fashion, cultural appropriation and racism, in which a variety of brands from Gucci to H & M have been called out and publicly flayed for making products that display striking historical ignorance or may exploit the work of others, have just been raised.
This week Alejandra Frausto, the cultural minister of Mexico, wrote a letter to Carolina Herrera, the New York fashion brand, accusing it of using, for its own ends, embroidery techniques and patterns specific to certain Mexican indigenous communities in the resort 2020 collection, which was shown in a series of appointments last week at the Herrera headquarters in the garment district. (The letter was first reported in El País.)
The collection, in sunrise shades, had been inspired, said Wes Gordon, the current creative director of the label, by the lifestyle of its founder, Mrs. Herrera, who is Venezuelan, and the idea of a “Latin holiday.” Recently Mr. Gordon and his husband had taken a trip to Mexico, where, he said, they were “mesmerized by its beauty.” The show notes given out at the time name-checked “Sunrise in Tulum; the light of Lima; Strolls in Mexico City; The waves of José Ignacio; Dancing in Buenos Aires; The colors of Cartagena.”
But the collection also included floral and bird embroidery on strapless gowns, perforated leather coats and baby-doll cocktail dresses that Ms. Frausto cited as belonging to the community of Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo, as well as a striped knit shirtdress that she saw as too closely resembling a serape from Saltillo.
The internet got very worked up, as is its wont in such situations.
When Mr. Gordon posted photos from the line on his personal Instagram page, the comments were likewise dismayed.
On the one hand, this is simply the latest example in a series of fashion wake-up calls — in 2017 Chanel was likewise accused of exploiting aboriginal traditions in Australia when it made a Chanel boomerang — but in recent months the charges have begun to pick up steam, facilitated by social media, which allows voices that may have previously been unheard to demand their due and have their say.
Last November, Dolce & Gabbana was forced to cancel a planned show in China over promotional videos the label had released depicting a Chinese model attempting to eat pasta with chopsticks; then Prada got in trouble for a window display of giant handbag charms that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Little Black Sambo figures. Earlier this month at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards ceremony in New York, Hasan Minhaj, a presenter, poked very pointed fun at Gucci for putting “white guys in turbans.”
But while in the past such offenses have most often been uncovered by industry watchdogs and the groups in question, this is the first time a national government had gotten involved.
In the letter, Ms. Frausto wrote, “This is a matter of ethical consideration that obliges us to speak out and bring an urgent issue to the UN’s sustainable development agenda: promoting inclusion and making those who are invisible visible.”
Herrera, which is owned by the Spanish fashion and beauty group Puig, has not posted a public response on any of its social media channels, issued a clear apology or revealed plans for reparations; rather, it made a fairly anodyne statement noting that the collection had always been intended partly as a tribute to and celebration of Mexico. In part, it said: “The emblematic fashion house recognizes the wonderful and diverse craft and textile work of Mexican artisans, its collection inspired by the culture’s rich colors and artisanal techniques.”
The statement went on to say that Mrs. Herrera was “a great admirer of Mexico” and that Mr. Gordon “wanted to show his deep respect for various techniques and traditional elements of Mexican craftsmanship and celebrate it at the level of haute couture craftsmanship.”
In a phone call, however, Mr. Gordon said that the label was in internal talks about what actions it would take in response.
“We want to do what it takes to make everyone feel the same joy about this collection we felt when making it,” he said, noting that he and Mrs. Herrera had not talked at length about the issue since, as creative director, it was his responsibility.
“We are going through a big social shift in how we talk about gender, culture and identity,” he continued. “These are important discussions to have. We take this very seriously.”
As should others, since the Herrera issue underscores the way that traditional fashion practices are increasingly problematic and out of date. See, for example, the fact the industry has been paying “homage” to various cultures and ethnic rituals since at least Yves Saint Laurent’s Russian collection in 1976. The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute staged an entire blockbuster show in 2015 dedicated to Western designers’ visions of China that was practically a study in appropriation over the last century. For years the “inspiration trip” to a far-flung location in search of new materials, shades and shapes to expand a repertoire was a basic practice of most houses (at least until the internet made actual physical movement unnecessary).
Indeed, in many ways that has been the designer formula: Take a smidgen of silhouette from here, a dash of decoration from there, sprinkle with a touch of art or architecture and voilà! — new collection. That is certainly what happened at Herrera, where Mr. Gordon took the signature vocabulary of the house — its uptown, gala-on-the-lawn essentials — and mixed those up with more unexpected designs to give it new life.
It’s just that now, because of our connected world, those who provide the “inspiration” are more aware of it than ever, and have begun to think of the result less as a tribute than as stealing — and to call it such. Those unexpected other designs happen to be someone else’s signature. Just because that signature does not belong to a particular designer doesn’t mean it’s fair game.
But since most fashion designs don’t enjoy intellectual property protections, there’s not much recourse for a wronged party other than naming and shaming.
Whether that is the answer to the current situation, however, is not entirely clear. And there is obviously a difference between racism (as displayed by Dolce, Gucci — in their blackface turtleneck — and Prada) and appropriation, though they tend to be conflated under the category of Gross Fashion Infringements.
When it comes to appropriation, anyway, most of the designer borrowing is not done with malice aforethought, though in its blithe usage it is clearly a hangover of an old colonial mentality. Ignorance is not an excuse; nor is history. (History is full of terrible precedent, now recognized for what it is.)
“We’re in a moment of understanding and acknowledging that what we’ve done in the past isn’t right always any more,” said Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who also said he believed Mr. Gordon had only the best intentions. “We’re all at a point where we have to do better.”
The issue is how do you wake designers up to that reality, rather than simply force them into a defensive crouch?
The natural end result of this particular trend, after all, is that designers and the brands they work for become so worried about offending that they cease to look at the world outside, defining their aesthetic evermore narrowly. Their own experience becomes their sole creative fodder. And that serves neither them nor us. It does not lead to new ways of being in an ever-evolving world. It leads to stasis.
Fashion, more than most industries, was founded on the principle of cultural cross-pollination. Like most cross-pollination, it has produced astonishing, illuminating results. That it did so in a way that ill-served some of those involved is unquestionable. That it needs to rethink its practices and systems so everyone has a seat at the table is also not in doubt. (This needs to start at the fashion school level.)
“The opportunity lies in the chance to work with the people of these communities,” Mr. Kolb said — rather than simply borrow from them.
If this happens in an atmosphere of equality — financial and aesthetic — rather than only recrimination, everyone will benefit. The question is whether, once the authority of a government minister is added to the pressure of the crowd, it is already too late?