MEXICO CITY - A production team from the popular French fashion label Sézane landed in Oaxaca earlier this month to photograph their new collection, drawing on the vibrant colors and patterns created by local artisans in southern Mexico.
But a video from one of those shoots, involving an indigenous Mexican woman, has drawn widespread criticism, including from the Mexican government, which has launched an investigation into the incident.
The video shows members of Sézane's production team photographing and filming an older indigenous woman, Guillermina Gutiérrez, apparently wearing a mix of traditional clothing and Sézane apparel. A member of the Sézane team then asks Gutiérrez to dance as the cameras film. A pop song plays in the background.
The video was reposted across several Instagram accounts and websites, drawing widespread criticism for appearing to manipulate the indigenous woman into serving as a part of the brand's commercial campaign.
In an interview with Milenio, a Mexican news channel, Gutiérrez said that the Sézane team changed her clothes multiple times. She said she had to stop her work at her small craft shop.
When 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 that 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 a "legal remedy" for the indigenous people who were photographed.
But executives at Sézane say the video is being misconstrued. They say it was not part of a commercial campaign but for a "backstage journal of the creative director."
"No payment was exchanged as these photos were not intended for commercial use," said Anne-Caroline Wacquiez, the head of communications at Sézane. "These are the photos of a woman met through a spontaneous encounter two days prior in the streets of Teotitlán del Valle, who accepted to come and share a lunch with the Sézane team and to participate in a quick informal backstage photoshoot."
Wacquiez did not say whether the "backstage journal" was meant to be shared on social media.
Sézane is a favorite among international fashion magazines and frequently featured under headlines 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, there have been growing campaigns from activists warning against using indigenous people and indigenous culture as the commercial face of Mexico, when those communities seldom benefit from those campaigns.
Last year, Mexico's government accused fashion brands including Zara and Anthropologie of appropriating designs and patterns from indigenous groups without crediting or paying those communities. The Culture Ministry said that Zara had 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 environment, history and worldview of the community," the ministry said.
In 2019, it also accused the designer Carolina Herrera of "cultural appropriation" for copying the floral embroidery used by indigenous communities in the state of Hidalgo.
Mexico's president weighed in on the debate in 2019, saying, "designs from the indigenous cultures of Mexico are constantly being plagiarized."
For decades, mostly light-skinned Mexican artists and designers - as well as foreigners - have drawn inspiration from Mexico's indigenous communities.
Yalitza Aparicio, the star of the movie Roma, made headlines here in 2018 when she became the first indigenous woman to appear on the cover of Vogue Mexico.