Wealthy French fashionistas aimed to profit off Indigenous Mexican elder
But Sézane says no profit was intended. Who to believe? The poor Indian lady or the rich fashion label?
Call Miranda Priestly. We just may need The Devil Wears Prada character’s ruthless assistance in getting some of the French fashionistas who could have inspired Priestley’s rival in the film, Jacqueline Folett, out of an Indigenous woman’s hair in Mexico.
Reporting from Mexico City by The Washington Post notes that the popular and growing French fashion label Sézane traveled to Oaxaca earlier in January “to photograph their new collection, drawing on the vibrant colors and patterns created by local artisans in southern Mexico.”
A video from one of those shoots, which portrays an elder Indigenous Mexican woman, named Guillermina Gutiérrez, is drawing “widespread criticism,” WaPo reports, “including from the Mexican government, which has launched an investigation into the incident.”
The video, which is posted all over social media by this point, shows Sézane's production team photographing and filming Gutiérrez wearing a combo of traditional clothing and Sézane clothing and accessories.
“A member of the Sézane team then asks Gutiérrez to dance as the cameras film,” the paper notes. “A pop song plays in the background.”
Native people may find it difficult to view the video as a fun, supposedly private diary by the savvy French clothiers, as the company is now portraying it to be. Instead, the filming seems potentially intended for public distribution and consumption, if not for the very social media buzz it is garnering, but for some larger designs and work that Sézane may now not be able to do, given this early backlash.
Gutiérrez, 75, reportedly told Milenio, a Mexican news channel, that the Sézane team “changed her clothes multiple times,” according to WaPo, and “she had to stop her work at her small craft shop” to do what they asked of her.
“They didn't give me anything," she told Milenio.
The National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, an agency of the Mexican government, is saying that it "strongly condemns the misuse of the image of indigenous Zapotec women by the French clothing brand Sézane."
"These actions threaten the dignity of peoples and communities and reinforce racist stereotypes about indigenous culture and traditions," the institute said in a statement, adding that the video relies on “racist stereotypes.” The institute further implored “private brands and companies to stop exploiting Indigenous and Afro-Mexican people and communities as cultural capital.”
The institute is looking to pursue legal options on behalf of Gutiérrez, it says.
Condemnation of the company continues to be strong on social media, with Manuela Cortés, a textile artist and art curator, posting the video on Instagram, adding, “Indigenous cultures treated like a display cabinet to pick and choose from. No respect. No morals.”
Sézane officials now say the video was not part of a commercial campaign, but for a "backstage journal of the creative director."
"No payment was exchanged as these photos were not intended for commercial use," Anne-Caroline Wacquiez, lead spokesperson at Sézane, told WaPo. "These are the photos of a woman met through a spontaneous encounter two days prior in the streets of Teotitlán del Valle, who accepted to come and share a lunch with the Sézane team and to participate in a quick, informal backstage photoshoot."
Sézane’s intentions aside, the fashion industry has long been accused by Indigenous people of abusing and appropriating tribal citizens, artistry and culture.
Few in the mainstream media would notice and cover these problems in the more distant past, but as social media has become more popular, Indigenous voices and claims are being heard more frequently, it seems, and more people are understanding why such appropriation is ethically and financially wrong.
American brands like Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie, Victoria’s Secret, Nike, Zara, Anthropologie and many others have frequently exploited and appropriated tribes and Native citizens.
Some are making amends. Urban Outfitters and Nike have gone so far to work directly with Native artists to sell Native-created clothing and shoes as a result of their past appropriation controversies.
It appears unlikely that Sézane will take a similar route any time soon, given its current denial-stage communications on the matter in question.
Model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse, Han Gwich'in and Oglala Lakota, has recently spoken out about the difficulties facing the very few Indigenous people working inside the fashion industry — and it is within the industry where the real change needs to come from, she has said.
"I just don't think I belong in spaces like that because I'm not an elitist," Chasinghorse told Insider about her experience attending last fall’s Met Gala. "My way of walking in this world, in the industry, is so different compared to everyone else because I feel like I'm constantly having to break barriers."
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