Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec is a small indigenous town in the mountains of Oaxaca. The 3,500 people who call it home speak Mixe. Few speak Spanish.
Despite its remote location, the town is famous for two things. Everyone there seems to play a musical instrument – they even have a traveling orchestra. But primarily, the town is known for its embroideries.
Erasmo Hernandez Gonzalez is the mayor of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. He says in Spanish that the textiles are “the essence of our identity.”
If, as Hernandez-Gonzalez says, the community’s embroidery designs are intrinsic to their community’s selfhood, then it’s understandable they would feel its designs are threatened. That’s what happened this year when French designer Isabel Marant released her spring-summer collection.
“My fashion, everybody calls it effortless when I do a lot of work to make it look effortless,” Marant said in an interview with French online shopping guide Nettement Chic.
Despite the designer’s effort, there’s one problem: it looks exactly like the centuries-old embroidery from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec.
“We have evidence that the designs are very old,” Hernandez-Gonzalez says in Spanish. “We have pictures from when the first cameras were introduced to our community and, not only that, but even our great-grandmothers wore the design.”
Marant says she was inspired by the artisans in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec.
Kisla Jimenez co-owns Tesoros Trading Company, an Austin-based store that sells hand-made goods from around the world.
“It is okay to be inspired,” Jimenez says, as she stands in front of a rack full of merchandise. She pulls out some embroidered shirts – from Oaxaca, El Salvador and India – and holds them side by side.
“This is an interesting example,” she continues, “This sort of looks Mexican, if you look at it. I think it’s clearly inspired by a Mexican design. But this is made in India.”
Inspiration is not a problem. Artists always borrow from each other. The problem is when that inspiration is patented. Designer Marant did not know a French company called Antik Batik apparently owns a patent for the designs of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. She’s been sued in France for copyright infringement.
The news of a lawsuit terrified major Hernandez-Gonzalez because he says it would destroy his community’s way of life. This week, he’s asking the federal government of Mexico to find a way to shield indigenous people and their culture from lawsuits.