After serving as “inspiration” from brands ranging from Diane von Furstenberg and Louis Vuitton to Land Rover, the Maasai, has been working to prevent other brands from “profiting at the tribe’s expense.” The Tanzania-based nation has looked to legal protections for the Maasai name and its indigenous prints. Kaqchikel Maya weavers in Guatemala are following in their footsteps.

After spending years organizing and pushing for legal rights for their designs, the Kaqchikel Maya’s local municipality declared in a landmark move that any traditional weavings and designs associated with town and the tribe are part of the heritage of the Kaqchikel town. As a result, any action by third parties to use these designs requires consultation with the weavers – most of which have organized with the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (“AFEDES”) – prior to use.

Organizing to Fight Fakes

“This is a historic moment,” Angelina Aspuac, the director of AFEDES, said. “This is the first town that has declared the weavings and designs as cultural heritage.” But this just the beginning.

Ms. Aspuac says the declaration “will begin the means to protect our weavings from companies that seek to take our traditional designs. If they want to use our weavings, they must ask permission from the community.” The town of Santiago Sacatepéquez is working to put a system in place to facilitate the necessary consultations with weavers in accordance with the International Labor Organization’s (“ILO”) Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

“This declaration is a message to businesses to inform them that these weavings do have an owner, and it is us, the residents of the community,” Aspuac says. “If they want to talk about using them, then they have to talk with us.”

Organization under the ILO – a U.N. agency that brings together governments, employers and worker representatives of member states, to set labor standards, develop policies and devise programs promoting ethical labor – is crucial for the Kaqchikel Maya weavers.

By working within the bounds of the ILO Convention, the Kaqchikel Maya weavers can ensure that all 187 ILO member states – which include the U.S., U.K., Italy, China, and many low-cost garment-manufacturing centers, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Mexico, among others – are subject to the rules regarding consultation before use.

As noted in the ILO’s Convention 169, the Kaqchikel Maya weavers, indigenous and/or tribal peoples, and their original designs are subject to the “full realization of the social, economic and cultural rights of these peoples with respect for their social and cultural identity, their customs and traditions and their institutions.”

The Convention calls for the “establishment of means for the full development of these peoples’ own institutions and initiatives,” such as the protection of the Kaqchikel Maya indigenous patterns and designs.

Most importantly, by working with the ILO, the AFEDES can hopefully ensure that a standard process is put in place to make consultations between brands and the Kaqchikel Maya weavers easier, and more effectively dissuade brands from replicating the woven designs without authorization from the Kaqchikel Maya.

The declaration by the municipality of Santiago Sacatepéquez is already inspiring other communities to work towards protecting their designs as well. One such place where this organizing is occurring is the town of Patzún, in the department of Chimaltenango.

According to local organizer, Sandra Xinico, “We are looking for an immediate means of protecting our cultural heritage through the municipality. The idea is to locally look for a means to guard our weavings, because we know that it is very difficult for the state to implement the reforms that we demand in a timely manner.”

Fashion’s Penchant for the Indigenous

In the past several years alone, a slew of fashion brands have come under fire for their use of indigenous prints and patterns. Most notably, Urban Outfitters was slapped with a strongly worded $1 million + lawsuit by the Navajo Nation over its use of the Navajo name on goods that included everything from necklaces, jackets and pants to flasks and underwear. Unlike non-native U.S. tribes, the Navajo Nation relied on various federal and state trademark laws, in addition to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a federal law that makes it illegal to sell arts or crafts in a way that could falsely suggest they were made by American Indians. 

Paris-based brand Isabel Marant has been in the spotlight more than once for its questionable prints, including the media storm that followed from her legal team reportedly filing to register a copyright in a print the brand is believed to have stolen from the indigenous people of Oaxaca, Mexico.

The print at issue was derived from the traditional designs of the Tlahuitoltepec Mixe, a group inhabiting the eastern highlands of Oaxaca, and found its way into Marant’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection.

On the heels of the collection and reports of legal action, Isabel Marant’s lawyer Jean-Marc Felzenszwalbe said the parties were close to reaching a resolution. He told WWD: “We are in close touch with the village and its authorities. The Tlahuitoltepec people have said that they do not want any money, but that their work be recognized.” He also added that the Mexican ambassador in France was on board helping Marant set up a collaboration of some sort between her and the Tlahuitoltepec people.

Still yet, London-based streetwear brand, KTZ was taken to task a couple years ago for allegedly stealing a traditional Inuit print and showing it in its Fall/Winter 2015 collection.