Amidst the fog that clouds the lush green mountain scenery of San Lucas Redención, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a group of women can be made out in the distance, distinguished by the bright colors of their dresses. They are Mixtec women of the Sierra Alta, and they are silent shepherdesses who guide the sheep. While they walk, they use their hands to embroider fabrics. They use the Pepenado technique in their dresses, which seem to speak for them. This is a skill that has been passed down from their grandmothers, where line by line, they pass the thread with their needle, puckering the white fabric until it becomes an accordion and then building complex figures.
These women of a thousand colors weave in rhythm as they make their pilgrimage through the mountains. On their blouses, there are images of deer, goats, birds and, on their sleeves, abstract figures of the flora of their land. Everything is embroidered in bright green, burgundy, yellow, orange or Mexican pink. It is impossible to describe the complexity of their technique, which is like an abacus that leaves loose stitches. They have learned and taught it by weaving. This peculiarity, this uniqueness of the textures was what seduced Maria Grazia Chiuri, designer of the house of Dior, to collaborate with them in her Cruise 2024 collection, which was inspired by Mexico.
Marcelina, Victoria, Elízabeth, María Juana, Irma, Virginia, Francisca and Isabel were not going to trade their identity to the reputed French fashion house. Their processes and techniques were to be in dialogue with the fashion house’s designs of wide skirts and plain tailored jackets. “Three figures were used for the Cruise collection: the orchid, the clover and a kind of abstract flower,” explains Narcy Morales, a designer who led this group of women and coordinated the entire collaboration process. “The embroiderers know what identifies them as women of the ethnic group they belong to, and they protect what they have more than anyone else. Only they can modify their knowledge and the shapes of their dresses. But when it comes to embroidery work for external community use, they are very open to exploring challenges,” adds Narcy.
For these Mixtec women, working together with Dior provided a way to show the boutiques of the world, the local markets of Tlaxiaco where they sell, and the Mexican and foreign buyers who visit the association’s festivities that the art of embroidering a blouse for three months deserves to be recognized and remunerated highly. Their work is pure art: the landscape is their workshop, the embroidery is their handwriting. It is a unique expression, which is impossible to copy, no two pieces are the same. This is why they were interested in aligning their craftsmanship with haute couture, which was the main focus that Maria Grazia Chiuri sought to give to this collection.
“This conversation that we have established between fashion and artisanal expertise can help sustain the tradition moving into the future, because there is always the risk of losing this knowledge,” said Chiuri in the interview she gave in Mexico before her fashion show. “I am very sensitive to this concern. I come from the south of Italy, where the tradition of passing on artisan knowledge from mother to daughter was lost, because the second generation discovered other, more profitable interests, because craftsmanship was seen as something domestic, because hard work was not recognized,” explained the designer, who also worked with Nahua weaver Hilan Cruz Cruz, chain stitch weaving expert Sodelva Espinoza Gutiérrez and Antonia Gómez Velazco — who has been using the backstrap loom for decades — on her exploratory trip through Mexico.
Remigio Mestas, a weaver from the Villa Hidalgo Yalalag region of Oaxaca, who has been committed to the preservation of weaving in Mexico for 30 years, fully understands the fear that drives Chiuri to travel the world and showcase some of the most hidden and ancestral weaving skills.
He himself has been forced to stop using the weaving loom he inherited from his mother to seek out opportunities that will allow the weavings of hundreds of communities to provide them with an income and, at the same time, to be preserved. “As a child, I saw my mother spend two months weaving a huipil — a traditional garment worn — on her backstrap loom, then go to the village market and find that no one would pay her asking price. If she wanted 1,000 pesos, she was offered 100. She had to leave it to the highest bidder and wait to be paid in installments on market days. The way out she found was to buy ready-made fabric and just embroider it. But that meant losing her art, giving it up,” explains the artisan, who currently works with 42 communities in Oaxaca and eight others across Mexico. “The commitment to these 400 families is to ensure that textiles will continue to be valued more and more highly.”
Remigio was in charge of coordinating the weaving of four huipiles for Dior’s 2024 Cruise collection, which brought together the weaving, embroidery and dyeing expertise of the Zapotecs of San Blas Atempa, from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the Chinantecos of the Papaloapan Basin, Valle Nacional. “When we were approached by Dior for this collaboration, we laid down three non-negotiable conditions: the first, honor where honor is due, which means for each garment giving credit to the community and the weaver who had worked on it. The second, was a fair price for the work we were going to do and, the third, the understanding that the community’s identity is not for sale,” explains the weaver, who believes that the textiles the communities make for foreigners can tolerate variations and changes in the warp and weft, for instance, weaving them looser so that the fabric has more room to move.
In Remigio’s land, it is said that the huipil was born from the goddess of the 13 serpents, a divinity that surfaced when the conquistadors chopped down a copal tree to build a church. The stripes on the shoulders of the huipil, the coralillo on the chest (a kind of plume design) and the colorful embroidered line at the end still have the power to represent these snakes. The sacred essence of this garment has managed to survive in within the community, although they have been selling their weavings to foreigners for decades.
Beyond the conversation that this collaboration with Dior has opened up, Remigio Mestas and the communities he worked with believe that, in a country like Mexico, which has endured so much plagiarism and misappropriation at the hands of famous fashion brands, “this is a path” that fashion should follow to work with artisans. “Today, the mestizos of Oaxaca and Mexico wear huipils. When I was a child and I went to sell what my mother wove, many people told me that it looked like a potato sack. That rejection is still there today, because many despise the clothing of native peoples and their textiles. But after the work with Dior, those who had not yet decided, are now intrigued because they realize that what we do is on a par with what the best in the world do,” concludes Mestas.
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