MEXICO CITY — The foreigners laugh as the elderly Indigenous woman raises her arms and sways back and forth to a 1960s pop melody, while a professional photographer begins snapping photos. Now, video of the photo shoot for a French fashion label has sparked widespread indignation and a sharp rebuke from the Mexican government.
The blow-up involving Sézane, a clothing line founded in Paris in 2013, is the latest chapter in a longstanding debate around cultural appropriation and racism in the fashion industry. Top brands have been publicly shamed for being predatory at worst and culturally insensitive at best.
The controversy arose after a team from Sézane staged a photo shoot with an elderly Indigenous woman in the Zapotec community of Teotitlán del Valle, in the state of Oaxaca, on January 7. The woman, Guillermina Gutiérrez, is wearing a green sweater from Sézane and sitting against a staged backdrop.
A woman from the French crew stands up and starts dancing with Gutiérrez to the 1968 Mary Hopkin song Those Were The Days. The woman then steps aside and encourages Gutiérrez to keep moving, prompting smiles, peels of laughter and words of encouragement.
But one onlooker was outraged: A Oaxacan resident who’d been hired by Sézane to help with its shoots, and recorded video of the scene.
The company arrived in Mexico in early January with a team of around 20 people, including models, photographers and videographers, said Kandy Mijangos, another Oaxacan hired to work with the crew. The photo shoot in Teotitlán, famous for its weaving, happened three days into a planned nine-day shoot in various regions of the state, according to a “mood board” the company put together outlining its vision for the publicity campaign. The board features models eating mangoes on the street, lounging in upscale hotels, and posing in front of marigolds.
Those plans evaporated after the person who filmed the elderly woman being cajoled into dancing shared the footage with Mijangos, who in turn shared it with Manuela Cortés, a textile artist and art curator. Cortés posted the video on her Instagram account with the comment, “Indigenous cultures treated like a display cabinet to pick and choose from. No respect. No morals.”
The video quickly racked up thousands of views and angry comments directed at the company, which advertises “luxury quality at a fair & accessible price” and promises “engagement in the community.” Most of its clothes sell in the $100 - $300 range. The person who shot the video declined to speak with VICE World News.
Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous People, a governmental agency, said Sézane’s actions reinforce “racist stereotypes” and called on “private brands and companies to stop exploiting Indigenous and Afro-Mexican people and communities as cultural capital.” They are not objects to sell clothing, the institute said, but citizens “possessing a vast cultural heritage and traditional knowledge.”
The agency said it would be in touch with Gutiérrez and her family, as well as authorities in Teotitlán del Valle, to initiate legal proceedings. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment from VICE World News about what specific legal actions it might take.
Mexico’s Government Ministry and its Secretary of Culture accused the French fashion company in a joint press release of “manipulating, using, and making a spectacle” of elderly people from Indigenous villages as “part of their publicity.”
Morgane Sèzalory, the company’s founder, who was present at the photo shoot, wrote a letter to Cortés saying she “never wanted to hurt anyone” and that her only intention was “to do things the most beautiful/right way, with all my heart and passion.” Cortés published the letter on her Instagram account.
Sèzalory said in the letter that she met “the beautiful woman” at a market, where they had “a true connection and shared joy,” prompting them to dance together. Sèzalory said she returned two days later to “make beautiful pictures I could then give her and add to my journal.” She said the local production team helped Sèzalory meet a third time with the woman “and we made beautiful pictures of her — and with her and her daughter.”
Sèzalory, who never mentions Gutiérrez by name, posted two photos with the elderly woman on her Instagram account, which has 296,000 followers. She's since taken them down.
In a statement to VICE World News, Sézane, which cut short its trip after the flap, said that “the photos in question were intended for the sole purpose of a backstage journal of the creative director.”
“We have heard and understand that our approach did affect the local Mexican community,” the company said. “And we are truly sorry that our actions did not reflect our best intentions and the profound respect we have for the local community.”
Cortés said she believes the company is lying.
“I don’t believe they took these photos because it was a meeting of the hearts and all this talk about love,” Cortés told VICE News. “It was clearly for an advertising campaign. There are professional cameras. There is someone helping direct the image of the woman dancing. There are lots of people in front of the woman trying to capture different moments.”
In an interview conducted by the Milenio TV network, Gutiérrez, who sells her own embroidery for a living, said she was told the photo shoot would only take a “little bit” but it lasted an hour. She wasn’t paid anything, she said.
Mijangos, the Oaxacan stylist hired by Sézane for the trip, said the French fashion company annoyed the Mexican staff from Day 1. Among other things, she said, they didn’t give contracts to their local hires, which is the standard practice for big production teams.
The French photographers and videographers didn’t ask Oaxaca residents for their permission to appear in images, added Mijangos, who left the shoot early out of her anger at the crew. In one case, she said, they staged one of the foreign models in a line of women waiting for a bus. Another time, she said, they took video in a market without seeking permission from the people who appeared in the background.
“I told the person who was filming that it was inappropriate. That at a minimum they should ask for permission from the people at the back of the market who appeared in the shot,” Mijangos said. “After that, they sent me to do other things further from the set.”
It isn’t the first time foreign clothing lines and companies have triggered allegations of cultural appropriation and disrespect for Mexican Indigenous traditions. Major companies, from Nestlé to Benetton, have been accused of appropriating images and designs created by artisans from around Tenango de Doria, a town in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. And in 2019, Mexico’s cultural minister accused the New York fashion line Carolina Herrera of stealing embroidery techniques and designs from Indigenous people.