It’s good that they sold that well. That job was a blessing and we were able to earn some good money we hadn’t seen in such a long time.
–María Deysi Balam Cuich
Not so long ago, we were witnesses to a conflict between high fashion (to be precise, French designer Isabel Marant) and Mexican craftsmanship. The then-mayor of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, Erasmo Hernández González, condemned the designer, and all those national and international companies, of appropriating indigenous traditional craftsmanship for profit without authorization or recognition. This particular case raised awareness among several organizations who decided to work together to protect the creativity and artistic visions of indigenous communities. These demonstrations fought for a just agreement and a fair payment towards the people who invented these original designs.
We’ve seen this story repeated so many times. Now, after all those efforts, the news about a collaboration between 100 women from Yucatan, Mexico and the famous designer Christian Louboutin has reopened the wound. Exploitation has acquired a new face while still holding the same dark essence. Disguised as a socially responsible project, the French company contacted a group of women, mostly belonging to the Mayan community of Maxcanu and nearby areas (like Oxkutzcab, Canek Mani, and Xohuayan), to design and manufacture a new collection of purses with the prestigious label of the brand. This project resulted in pieces which will have retail prices of about 1,500 USD each. Yet these women were paid only around 13 dollars.
When the case reached the news, many Mexicans and people from all over the world burst into a rage in social media, condemning the opportunistic practices of the designer. Many have questioned the story behind this "collaboration" trying to find the main responsible. However, there have been many versions around the issue. Representatives of the Fundación Haciendas del Mundo Maya (a nonprofit organization that works hand in hand with Mayan communities and the ones that worked as the liaison between the fashion label and the artisans) have claimed that the aforementioned amount only included the adornment of the bags, not the manufacture. So, they claim that each woman was paid around 40 dollars per piece.
Still, some questions remained unanswered: who were the creative directors of this collaboration? How exactly were these Mayan women involved? Who’s really benefiting from the collaboration or who gets the profit from that copyright? Louboutin did actually supply them with the materials and equipment necessary to create the products. However, these women not only manufactured the purses, but they also portrayed their identity and culture, things they weren't paid for. If they were just a group of seamstresses in charge of attaching the brand label or building determined clothes, the deal would be sort of understandable, although not entirely defensible. However, these Mayan artisans were also in charge of pouring their millenary knowledge and traditions into these products without being economically acknowledged for their designs and ideas.
Graciela Zavala, working for the mediator Foundation, claims that these women were paid what they asked for, since they generally charge about 8,50 dollars per ornament. In the same way, she states that each purse created for Mexicaba –Louboutin’s collection inspired by Mayan designs– is the result of a complex process that involves French, Indian, and Italian workers. Moreover, 10% of sales will be destined to create a new workshop in Santo Domingo Maxcanu (the region where most of these women come from). However, they still haven’t clarified if that was the fairest agreement the foundation was able to negotiate with the brand and to what extent were the property rights regarding the artistic creativity protected in a purse that looks more Mayan than French.
Now, we can only hope that all the criticism and negativity around the case doesn’t affect this artisan collective that is still celebrating the success of the purses and waits to be hired again by this brand or any other in the future.
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