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The design of a clothing line doesn't typically rise to the level of an international controversy. But this week, Mexico's minister of culture called out a U.S.-based fashion designer in a letter. The minister suspects Carolina Herrera used indigenous groups' patterns without giving them credit. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Carolina Herrera's Resort 2020 collection includes dresses that look like Mexican sarapes, striped shawls from Saltillo. Others are decorated with embroidered flowers and birds like those hand-stitched in Tenango de Doria. On its website, the fashion house says the designs pay homage to, quote, "the playful and colorful mood of a Latin holiday." The company's creative director Wes Gordon says his designs were inspired by a vacation he took in Mexico with his husband. But in what may be a first, a national government is protesting. Along with the culture minister's letter, Mexican Senator Susana Harp posted this protest on Twitter.
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SUSANA HARP: (Speaking Spanish).
DEL BARCO: She said the company didn't get permission or give respect or compensation to the communities whose traditions showed up in the collection. She even used the hashtag #MexicoWithoutPlagiarism.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Pretty much as long as there have been fashion designers, they have been reaching out to cultures, to countries, to communities outside of their own environment in search of inspiration.
DEL BARCO: Robin Givhan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic for The Washington Post. She notes that in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent was heralded for its groundbreaking Russia collection, but much has changed since the days when fashion designers were deified.
GIVHAN: So while in the past it might have been applauded and seen as almost an honor to have, you know, your culture absorbed by some rarefied French fashion house, I think today people - you know, they don't see that as an honor. They see that as insult. They see it as, how dare you? Like, I own this. You don't.
DEL BARCO: Jason Kass is associate dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons in New York. He says it's an interesting moment for the fashion industry.
JASON KASS: There've been enough of these instances in the past few years that I think as an industry we really need to look at the systems that we operate within and, you know, make some decisions about what the right way to move forward is.
DEL BARCO: Emilio Montero Perez, the mayor of a Zapotec town in Oaxaca, has one idea. He's calling on the Mexican Congress to pass stronger laws to protect indigenous heritage.
EMILIO MONTERO PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
DEL BARCO: "Bigshot artists make their millions," he says, "while our indigenous communities continue to be cast aside and forgotten." But there is a model to make authentic fashion with respect for other cultures. For years, Mexico City designer Carla Fernandez has contracted with some of the artisans whose work was copied by Carolina Herrera's collection.
CARLA FERNANDEZ: The best designers of my country are in the highlands, in the deserts and in the jungles. So for me, it's a privilege. And I learn every day from them.
DEL BARCO: Fernandez says she pays her collaborators fair wages for their work. She's especially insulted by this incident coming at a time when relations between the U.S. and Mexico are tense.
FERNANDEZ: They want our embroideries. They love the way we dress. But they don't love the people that make that. It's time to say, enough, stop. (Speaking Spanish).
DEL BARCO: Fernandez says Native peoples have had it with their folk traditions being seen on the runways, in magazines and stores without getting anything in return. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.