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Indigenous rights and traditions in Fashion


Indigenous day was set to be on August 9th, as a reminder to celebrate indigenous cultures. Like always, the Fashion industry takes this as an occasion to boost their marketing campaigns and push for more consumerism. But, clothing production in its current globalised form impacts indigenous populations in a multitude of ways. So, let’s take a look at them, and see how Fashion could actually celebrate their incredible knowledge, art, and way of thinking.


comparisons of a product from mexican designer yucachulas being copied by the ultra fast fashion brand shein shein being called out by the mexican government

You knew this was coming. Just a few days ago, the Mexican government itself sent a letter to the Fast Fashion monster Shein, for using and commercialising a pattern that was created by Mayan artisans. The design was stolen in all of its forms, and the picture posted by the designer says it all.

The blouse was sold for only $7 USD, which is a tell-tale sign of environmental and human exploitation, and of course no design fee was paid to anyone. It’s great that the Mexican government supported this specific case, including many others against Zara, Anthropologie, Louis Vuitton and Isabel Marant, however there are many more situations that go unnoticed, and the designers that create beautiful patterns and designs aren’t heard. This happens to indigenous people from all around the world, another recent case being design theft from the Oma community in Laos. Beyond Fashion design, there are also a lot more examples in hairstyles (think of braids) and makeup (think of the bindi).

Not only is it not financially fair that brands steal the hard work of someone, but there is also no respect for the meaning of such patterns, which are often an integral part of indigenous people’s identities.

"Can you imagine a significant symbol of your culture which took you a tremendous amount of time to make by hand, reduced to a printed pattern on a mass-produced garment?" Asks Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre co-director Tara Gujadhur.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way!

There is a major opportunity for large brands to financially support and celebrate these artisans. Instead of stealing designs online, they could reach out to the designer, ask whether they agree for their design to be used, pay a significant design fee, and clearly advertise and credit the ownership and meaning of it. All it takes is a bit of respect and time.

Let’s take a look at some great examples of cultural collaboration.

Fashion Revolution started its Fashion Open Studio, showcasing the work of ethical designers. A great BBC article showcases the example of the brand Anciela, which celebrates its Colombian heritage and folklore, combined with traditional British tailoring. Its collections come with a detailed explanation on the meanings behind the designs, and highlight the beauty of the culture they take inspiration from.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, IP laws exclude traditional cultural expressions from protection and relegate them to the public domain, therefore they have to be protected by common sense and respect, rather than by laws. The organisation also developed a Practical Guide to Intellectual Property for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. There are solutions and resources out there, they just have to be used!


The Fashion industry is well known for destroying rainforests, polluting waters, and damaging ecosystems. If you are curious on how, check out our article on biodiversity.

For indigenous people, however, ecosystems and rainforests are their homes, and often carry spiritual meanings. Indigenous groups such as the Yanomamo and Kayapo have been living in the Amazon for thousands of years, accumulating detailed knowledge of the rainforest, methods to subsist from it, without damaging it. Destroying rainforests means destroying their homes and religious spirits.

Globalised supply chains also mean that the natural heritage is not being considered in decision making. For indigenous people, and for biodiversity, plant variety, biological resources and the exchange of seeds is extremely important. However, indigenous seeds are not owned by international corporations, don’t come with a large profit for them, and yet, people are standing up for the right to keep using them against discriminatory laws.


Indigenous people’s traditions and belief systems often mean that they treat nature with deep respect, as they have a powerful sense of place and belonging. They understand that nature is a much stronger power than that of humans, and that it needs to be protected, or we will suffer the consequences.

Indigenous people’s ways of life match with modern notions of nature conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources, as well as the fight against consumerism, capitalism, and the systems that are behind Fast Fashion.

Celebrating Indigenous culture shouldn’t be done only today, but all year round, by observing and respecting nature, valorising Indigenous art, culture, and symbols, rather than stealing them, and living in harmony with ecosystems.


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