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Mexico’s Ministry of Culture Claims Levi’s, Draco Textile Plagiarized Mazatec Designs

The Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico is on a mission to protect the country’s indigenous artisans.

On Nov. 21, the ministry sent Levi’s Mexico and a Mexico-based textile supplier, Draco Textil Collective, letters that request a public explanation “on what grounds a collective property is commercialized and privatized, making use of cultural elements whose origin is fully documented, and how its use should reap benefits to the creative communities.”

The designs in question include Levi’s Premium Trucker jackets and jeans made in collaboration with Draco Textil that feature embroideries the ministry claims belong to Oaxaca state’s Mazatec culture.

Both letters cite the Federal Copyright Law of the State of Mexico: “The protection of works is broad with respect to their exploitation, that is, they cannot be used without the written authorization of the people or title community, much less carry out the deformation of it in order to cause demerit to the work or damage to the reputation or image of the community or town to which they belong.”

Mexican Ministry of Culture
Levi’s (left); Example of Manya embroidery technique (right) Mexican Ministry of Culture

For authorization, the letter states that it is mandatory for companies to indicate the groups or communities to whom it belongs as well as provide fair and equitable remuneration. In the event of commissioning a job, “the payment received for the job is independent of the remuneration agreed for the use and exploitation of said expression,” the letter states.

The ministry points out that Levi’s and Draco did not indicate the name of the communities or provide any compensation.

“Draco is just recreating embroidery from the entire Mexican textile language in their sample room,” said Carmen Artigas, a Mexico City-based sustainable fashion designer and consultant to brands interested in improving their sourcing, manufacturing and labor practices. On top of that, she said Levi’s and Draco dissembled the embroideries which are meant to be a whole.

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Levi Mexico, however, refutes the claims and it continues to sell and promote the collection on its e-commerce website. In a statement to Entrepreneur, Levi’s Mexico asserts that it made sure to comply with Federal Copyright Law and that contracts between Levi’s, Draco and the artisans establish terms for a better collaboration and prevention of any act that could be interpreted as cultural appropriation.

“Levi’s Mexico at no time carried out actions that could be considered as cultural appropriation, impairment, damage or any illegal act against the Oaxacan culture, since the realization of our project was done in accordance with Mexican law and international agreements in the matter,” the company stated.

The brand teased the collection in a video posted to Levi’s Mexico’s Instagram account on Nov. 13. In the caption, Levi’s Mexico states that it collaborated with Draco and artists Sarai Silva and Rótulos Bautista to create a limited series of apparel. In a more detailed post on Nov. 29, Levi’s Mexico states that Draco collaborated over several months with artisans and designers on 100 items for an exclusive collection for Levi’s new Oaxaca store, which opened on Nov. 12.

The post states that Draco Textil worked “hand in hand” with artisans from the Oaxaca region and granted remuneration. The artisans, which Levi’s specifies by name, embroidered canvases that were subsequently dissembled with their prior permission to create patchwork effects. This work, according to the post, was carried out in the Draco workshop located in the city of Oaxaca by Oaxacan women.

“With a presence in over 100 countries, we promote equity, support communities and build a more sustainable future for the plant,” Levi’s Mexico stated.

Additionally, in a post on Draco Textil’s official account, the company thanked the artisans involved in the project. The post was published on Nov. 17.

Sending these letters is part of the public policy that the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico implemented since the beginning of the administration for the defense of the cultural heritage of native communities to avoid plagiarism of their identity elements by companies national and transnational. The letters are signed by Mexico’s secretary of culture Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, who oversees the “preservation, dissemination and promotion of the tangible and intangible heritage of the people of Mexico.”

Since June 2019, Frausto Guerrero has steadfastly called out the fashion industry’s frequent misuse of Mexico’s material culture. She previously sent public letters to Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, Isabel Marant, Zara and others for appropriating Mexican designs.

In general, the current government administration is working on a de-colonization campaign to help give visibility and a voice to Mexican artisans, which have gone unnoticed since colonial times, Artigas said.

Fashion is at the center of the government’s effort to convert cultural appropriation into meaningful collaborations. México Creativo, a platform focused on the training, incubation, project monitoring and certification processes that help promote diverse and sustainable sociocultural ecosystem, has evolved from this campaign, Artigas said. Last month, the Ministry of Culture hosted Original, a fashion fair that highlighted indigenous creations and the artisans behind them in the hopes for fair and authentic collaborations with fashion brands and designers.

The Mexican government has also established the Business Salon, a space that offers “institutional support,” encourages collaboration, and promotes ethical and fair production and consumption practices for all participants. With the government establishing a team of advisors and lawyers to work with brands that want to start a collaboration with artisans, Artigas said they’re creating a path to help set plans in motion and ensure the proper parties benefit from the work.

The added help and attention to artisans could not arrive at a more crucial time. Because of the pandemic, “artisans are barely making sales,” she said. “They are in survival mode.”