Designs crafted by Mexican ancestral cultures are popular and coveted the world over, to the extent that international fashion houses such as Ralph Lauren can’t help but reproduce them in various different ways. Doing so, though, can lead to accusations of cultural appropriation, and the US apparel designer was on the end of one from Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, writer, journalist and the wife of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who called out the brand on social media on Wednesday. “Hey, Ralph, we already knew that you’re a big fan of Mexican designs. However, by copying these designs you are committing plagiarism, which is illegal and immoral,” Gutiérrez Müller wrote, while also asking the company to “compensate the damage to the native communities who do this work.”
The controversy was sparked by a skirt and a bathrobe designed by Ralph Lauren that perfectly imitates the design of the original sarapes (a poncho-like garment) worn in the municipality of Contla de Juan Cuamatzi, in the state of Tlaxcala, to the east of Mexico City. There, hundreds of local artisans continue to make sarapes in the traditional way and Mexican Secretary of Culture Alejandra Frausto has accused Ralph Lauren of “wrongful cultural misappropriation.” The fashion house has not issued any response to Gutiérrez Müller or Frausto and its line of clothing clearly based on these Mexican designs, which also includes sweatshirts and shirts, remains on sale at prices 10 times greater than what a locally made original would retail at.
Frausto said on social media that “symbols of identity are not merchandise.” The head of the Secretariat of Culture also noted that the communities who craft these designs decide how and where their garments are commercialized. Frausto also invited these communities to attend the Original 2022 festival in Mexico City from November 17 to 20, which will also play host to artisans from Contla de Juan Cuamatzi and Saltillo, the two towns involved in a dispute over the intellectual property rights to the traditional sarape, even though those produced by each carry very different color designs.
The Ralph Lauren case is yet another example of the uphill battle Mexico faces to prevent international brand names from seeking inspiration from ancestral cultures, to the point of plagiarism. Another recent incidence occurred when Shein, a Chinese low cost fast fashion retailer, was accused by Yucachulas, A Mexican brand based in Yucatán, of having plagiarized its traditional designs. Shein agreed to remove the items from its catalog and issued an apology.