Last week, the Chinese firm Shein was accused of plagiarism and cultural appropriation by the Mexican Ministry of Culture, because on the website of this fast fashion giant you could find a flowered blouse practically identical to a traditional huipil embroidered in 2017 by the handcrafted clothing brand YucaChulas, which was the first to denounce the situation on social networks.
In response to the accusations, the retailer has now announced, using a statement that the company has entitled “We respect and celebrate all cultures. We reaffirm our respect for the artisans of Mexico and around the world”, that the garment in issue has been removed from its website, where it was listed for sale for less than 7 euros.
In the statement Shein explains that they did not seek to “infringe anyone’s valid copyright” justifying that this is not part of how they conceive their business model. According to Shein, the crux of the matter lies with its suppliers, who although “they are obliged to comply with the company’s policies and certify that their products do not infringe the intellectual property of third parties” there may be cases in which they do not comply, ensuring that if they discover “that any supplier is not in compliance, we take immediate action”.
Is it then an isolated case?
Although Shein defends itself by blaming suppliers for not being original in their work, this is, however, a more common issue than the multinational seems to assume, as Shein accumulates in its history a large number of similar accusations, mostly belonging to small designers, who at some point have been surprised by the appearance of their designs or similar on the websites of this giant without receiving any recognition or -as it is to be imagined- any benefit whatsoever.
Big companies don’t seem to be intimidated by Shein either, as the likes of Ralph Lauren, Oakley and Dr. Martens have also pointed fingers at the retailer in the past for seeing their designs plagiarized among the wide variety of products that are updated daily on its platform, but fall short of making use of its brand labels.
This is a common practice in the textile sector, where fast fashion is inspired by luxury brands to, let’s say, democratize the access of more people to certain items, creating other similar items of lower range at a lower price, the common denominator shared by all cases.
A curious case in this regard is that of Zara and is that, not only can be found on the website of Shein dupes that is virtually impossible to differentiate from the originals, but there are also even in social networks different accounts with thousands of followers who compare and share daily references of these products in their feed, to allow users to find them more easily.
Short blouses or huipiles, identity of the Mayan people
Returning to the specific case of the most recent accusation against Shein, this blouse, which in addition to its quality and a color change in the trimming of “the edges of the neck, sleeves and the finishing of the final bows”, is little different from the original as far as its appearance is concerned, “is an insult to all the artisans who live and dedicate themselves to embroidery”, YucaChulas explained on their Instagram account, because, “the blouses or short huipiles, like this one, are made in various Mayan communities in the states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, as part of the identity of this Mayan people and as an economic alternative for their daily sustenance” explained the Mexican cultural body.
In the communiqué issued at the time by those in charge of preserving, disseminating and promoting the tangible and intangible heritage of the country’s people, the Mexican government asked for explanations as to “on what grounds a collective property is being commercialized and privatized, making use of cultural elements whose origin is fully documented, and how their use rewards the creative communities”.
“We are very sad to see this type of plagiarism”, “it is a lack of recognition to the work of the artisans who are dedicated to this work and live from craftsmanship, in this case embroidery, the sad thing is how this artisan work is devalued and many people continue to buy from this platform without knowing the real origin of many of the designs they sell. It is a great violation of intellectual property and, above all, of culture,” says Yucachulas.
And the fact is that, as well defined in their letter from the Mexican Government, “The elaboration of each of these pieces involves hours of work due to the precision required for each stroke, as well as to achieve the combination of colors that give depth to each floral design. Not only do they represent part of the environment and nature, but they are part of their cosmovision as they are related to the joy of life, they are a reflection of their emotions and feelings, therefore they are part of their identity as a Mayan people and culture”, adds the text, a cultural piece in itself of which its counterpart was totally stripped by being mass produced and with low quality materials, but above all, ignoring its tradition.
Other large firms have also made use of Mexico in the past
This is not the first time that the Mexican government has confronted large foreign firms for commercially exploiting distinctive elements of Mexican culture in their products. In fact, since January, the new General Law for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Indigenous and Afro-American Peoples and Communities has been included in the Official Journal of the Federation (DOF), which provides for fines of at least 10 million pesos (about 500,000 euros) and imprisonment for those who make any unauthorized use for profit.
In 2020, Mexico’s Office of Culture raised a claim of the same type against French designer Isabel Marant, who had previously been accused of this fact in 2015, and ended up apologizing. French house Louis Vuitton, Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, Spain’s Mango and Inditex and U.S.-based Patowl have also been questioned in the past by the country, which with 56 ethnic groups has a significant wealth of handicrafts, including different textile and embroidery techniques.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.ES, translated and edited to English by Kelly Press.
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