A French fashion brand is under fire for a photo shoot involving indigenous women in southern Mexico

MEXICO CITY – A production team from acclaimed French fashion brand Sézane landed in Oaxaca earlier this month to photograph their new collection, drawing inspiration from the vibrant colors and patterns created by local artisans in southern Mexico .

But a video of one such shooting, involving an indigenous Mexican woman, has drawn widespread criticism, including from the Mexican government, which has opened an investigation into the incident.

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The video shows members of the Sézane production team photographing and filming an older indigenous woman, Guillermina Gutiérrez, apparently wearing a mix of traditional clothing and Sézane clothing. A member of Sézane’s team then asks Gutiérrez to dance while the cameras film. A pop song is playing in the background.

The video was reposted on several Instagram accounts and websites, drawing widespread criticism for appearing to manipulate the indigenous woman into being part of the brand’s marketing campaign.

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In an interview with Milenio, a Mexican news channel, Gutiérrez said Sézane’s team changed their clothes several times. She said she had to quit her job at her small craft shop.

After the shoot was over, she said, “they didn’t give me anything.”

In a statement this week, the Mexican government’s National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) said 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.

The institute said it would seek “legal recourse” for the photographed natives.

But Sézane executives say the video is being misinterpreted. They say it wasn’t part of a commercial campaign but a “creative director’s behind-the-scenes diary”.

“No payment was exchanged because these photos were not intended for commercial use,” said Anne-Caroline Wacquiez, communication manager at Sézane. “These are the photos of a woman met during a spontaneous meeting two days before in the streets of Teotitlán del Valle, who agreed to come and share a lunch with the Sézane team and to participate in a quick and informally behind the scenes.”

Wacquiez didn’t say if the “behind the scenes diary” was meant to be shared on social media.

Sézane is a favorite of international fashion magazines and is frequently featured under titles such as “How to Dress Like a Parisian in 5 Wardrobe Essentials” from a March 2021 issue of Vogue.

The controversy comes as Mexico continues to reckon with vast disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. In recent years, more and more activists have warned against using indigenous peoples and indigenous culture as the commercial face of Mexico, when these communities rarely benefit from these campaigns.

Last year, the Mexican government accused fashion brands such as Zara and Anthropologie of appropriating designs from indigenous groups without crediting or paying those communities. The Ministry of Culture said Zara used a design created by the indigenous Mixteca community in a mint-colored dress with green embroidery.

The design “reflects ancestral symbols related to the community’s environment, history and worldview,” the ministry said.

In 2019, she also accused designer Carolina Herrera of “cultural appropriation” for copying floral embroidery used by indigenous communities in Hidalgo state.

Mexico’s president weighed in on the debate in 2019, saying that “designs from Mexico’s indigenous cultures are constantly plagiarized.”

For decades, most light-skinned Mexican artists and designers—as well as foreigners—have drawn inspiration from Mexico’s indigenous communities.

Roma star Yalitza Aparicio made headlines here in 2018 when she became the first indigenous woman to appear on the cover of Vogue Mexico.

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