I’ve always like to use fashion as a reflection of my personal style, attitude and culture. It’s one of the many reasons so many people are drawn to this multi-million dollar industry. It allows us to be whoever we’d like to be, while also showing a piece of ourselves to the world without having to say much. However, it was not until recently did I really understand the effects my choices had on the world.
As a young girl, I always tried to find reflections of myself in stores. I was drawn to bright colors, patterns, embroidery. That was my aesthetic – Tribal Print. In a world where we don’t often see our cultures depicted in the main stream, I felt that by wearing these imitation designs, I was representing myself and my culture. I did not give my thought as to where those designs came from, what they meant, and who was profiting.
This all changed in 2015 when I heard about a French designer, Isabel Marant, who stole designs from a Oaxacan community in Mexico, and tried to pass them off as her own. Not only did she strut these designs down runways and sold them for hundreds of dollars, she attempted to patent the designs, which would have prevented this indigenous community to sell the designs that had been part of their community and culture for generations. (Read more about this case on Vogue and Mitú)
Additionally, that same year, I witnessed my dear friend, B.Yellowtail face a similar struggle when European designer KTZ knocked off designs from her collection – one that she designed with great respect and reverence for her people, culture and traditions. (Read more here). KTZ continuously steals indigenous designs, while claiming to be “inspired” and “showing respect” to Native people.
This filled me with rage. Here I was witnessing the continued cultivation and theft of indigenous cultures and tradition by the fashion industry. The continued denial that indigenous people still exist and matter. The on-going fetishization and appropriation of a people that still struggle to be seen, heard and most of all respected.
This is when it dawned on me: I was part of the problem.
Although I wanted to believe that I was using fashion to show the world who I was and the pride in my blood, I was effectively using my money and my choices to support the continued cultural rape of my people. I was allowing these brands to profit of off theft. And as a Woman of Color, I was effectively giving them permission to do so.
Money is powerful. It is more powerful than our voices, than our votes, and almost any other tool we as individuals have at our disposal. We cannot allow our money to be used to support brands, whether fashion or other consumer goods, that are at odds with our values.
I have since made a conscious and continual effort to not make choices that appropriate culture. I seek and support authenticity. I look for brands that pay homage and honor the cultures that they represent. I look for items made by people that are trying to preserve indigenous designs, not those that steal them.
Don’t be fooled by words like “tribal” ,”bohemian” and especially “Aztec” or “Navajo”. These are marketing tools that tell you upfront “This is an imitation of a stole design”. Indigenous people are still around today, and they are still designing. They make beautiful clothing that tell stories.
There is nothing more beautiful to me than representing who I am through my style. And that means representing myself, and my culture, authentically. I choose pieces that come from people and communities who understand what designs mean and where they come from.
By making intentional choices and spending money on brands that support our values, we essentially show that we care where things come from, who makes them and the intent behind pieces. After all, it’s your money, your vote, that companies are after. So shop with intention and respect, and look for authenticity, not appropriation.
Con Mucho Amor,
Top: Traditional Mexican Folklorico Blouse – Hecho En Mexico
Earrings: Carmen Creations
Photography: Stephanie Rosa
Location: Downtown Phoenix, Arizona