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Mexican Ministry Slams Junya Watanabe for Using Traditional Mexican Serapes

Japanese designer Junya Watanabe is facing accusations of cultural appropriation related to his recent Fall/Winter 2022 men’s collection.

The video presentation showcased several pieces featuring serapes, the vibrantly striped woven blankets made famous by the communities of Saltillo in Coahuila and Contla in Tlaxcala, Mexico. Though the brand stated that it “invited participation from the Secretariat of Culture of Mexico” to incorporate the indigenous design in its presentation, the Mexican government issued a statement describing its efforts as unethical.

On Jan. 23, the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico said Junya Watanabe ultimately “put its commercial calendar before the interest of closing an ethical agreement” even though it reached out to start negotiating in late November.

As part of the negotiation, the ministry requested that Junya Watanabe include garment labels recognizing the communities’ rights to the designs, as well as payment for use and funding for materials and equipment. The brand was also asked to jointly organize an international seminar on collective rights and to consider a future collaboration with artisans of the communities. Junya Watanabe’s parent, Comme des Garçons, proposed exploring a collaboration later down the line.

Mexico’s Ministry of Culture accuses Junya Watanabe of cultural appropriation in Fall/Winter 2022 men’s collection featuring serapes.
Junya Watanabe WWD

The brand then launched the campaign, created with Jay Kay of the funk band Jamiroquai, with the serape garments before both parties could come to a fair deal.

Junya Watanabe did not immediately respond to Rivet’s request for comment.

The brand’s recent Instagram posts promoting the collection have been met with a wave of criticism from users questioning the origin of the designs and demanding that the appropriate communities get recognition. Fashion watchdog account Diet Prada also got involved, stating, “It’s too bad Junya Watanabe didn’t take time to do right by the Mexican communities” and that “the collection probably would have been stronger for it.”

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This is not the first time Watanabe has been accused of similar misdeeds. The designer’s Spring/Summer 2016 men’s presentation, an African-inspired show held at the Museum of Immigration, featured models wearing preppy shirts and chinos alongside traditional African Masai beaded necklaces and batik-printed fabrics. Despite the nods to Masai culture, the presentation lacked model diversity.

To protect its local crafters and artisans, the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico has been cracking down on what it considers to be unfair business practices. In December, it scrutinized Levi’s for alleged plagiarism. The government sent Levi’s Mexico and Mexico-based textile supplier Draco Textil Collective  a letter requesting they publicly address the use of Mazatec designs—embroideries the ministry claims belong to Oaxaca state’s Mazatec culture—in a range of Levi’s Premium Trucker jackets and jeans. Levi’s Mexico refuted the claims and said it made sure to comply with federal copyright law, and that contracts between Levi’s, Draco and the artisans establish terms for better collaboration that prevent any act that could be interpreted as cultural appropriation.

In its response to Watanabe’s collection, the Mexican ministry reaffirmed its commitment to local artisans.

“The Secretary of Culture of the Government of Mexico endorses its commitment to place at the center of its agenda and daily responsibility, the defense of the rights of creative communities and generate a dialogue between equals, with respect and ethics, where traditional creators be the ones who decide with whom and how they want to work,” it said.