Almost exactly one year ago, writer and scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham lamented the pointlessness of fashion’s cultural-appropriation debate in an opinion piece in The Atlantic. “Waves upon waves of backlash haven’t stopped Western designers from continuing to swipe recklessly from other cultures,” she noted, wearily describing the cycle in which designers poach looks from marginalized people, critics decry the incidents as appropriation, and defenders claim it’s actually “cultural appreciation and inspiration.” We can rinse and repeat, but eventually the noise fades and not much changes.
In the case of Isabel Marant’s new “bohemian” Étoile line, however, it’s hard to even muster a flimsy cultural inspiration defense, since the Oaxacan Mixe culture the clothes were “inspired” by have been completely erased from the narrative. Consider this dress for sale on Net-a-Porter’s website:
Both the fabric and embroidery, which Net-a-Porter describes as “black and claret floral design,” is virtually identical to the traditional huipil blouses worn in Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, a town in Oaxaca inhabited by the Mixe indegenous group.
Artisans and residents from the community have spoken out about the blatant plagiarism of the design – which has been preserved for generations in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte region – expressing anger that its cultural origins have been completely erased and that none of the artisans who make this clothing have been recognized. Susana Harp, a Oaxacan singer, took to Twitter to express her anger in January about rip-offs:
— Susana Harp (@SusanaHarp) January 4, 2015
— Tajëëw (@TajeewDR) May 18, 2015
At $290, the shirt is more than six times the average price of a huipil in Oaxaca.