Clothing companies, celebrities, and influencers around the world are being criticized for culturally appropriating Mexican indigenous textiles and garments known as huipiles.
The huipil, pronounced wee-peel, is a pre-Hispanic garment worn by indigenous women located in Mexico and Central America.
Contrary to what many major fashion corporations have depicted, the huipil is more than just a blouse or a dress.
Each huipil tells a story and contains symbolism from the indigenous group who made it.
Fashion Designer Jesus Herrera
“The fine line is to be educated in what aspects of another culture we can engage with and what we can wear [versus] what aspects are sacred,” Jesus said.
Originally from Xalapa, Veracruz, Jesus collaborates with Mexican and Latin American artisans to create sustainable and one-of-a-kind couture pieces that celebrate Mexican culture.
While Jesus’s business has gained notoriety through online platforms like Instagram and Etsy, Jesus’ journey in becoming a fashion designer was never easy.
Crossing the Border
Jesus first came to the United States after crossing the border illegally with their uncle and oldest brother at the age of six.
“I crossed the border near Arizona and we arrived in Phoenix,” Jesus said.
Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the United States brought tremendous amounts of adversity and pain to Jesus’ life.
“I grew up in this world where our brothers were taking care of each other. We tried to protect each other because we knew the danger of our situation,” Jesus said.
After paying around three-thousand dollars for each person in their family to cross the border, Jesus’ parents faced serious debt for about a decade which eventually affected Jesus’ decision to attend college.
Skipping College & Moving to Mexico
At the age of 16, Jesus realized that their parents would not have enough money to pay for Jesus to go to school.
“They worked in factories and made minimum wage,” Jesus said.
Although Jesus did everything they could to get full scholarships, it didn’t matter.
“The scholarships I got I couldn’t use because I was undocumented,” Jesus said.
Moving Back to Mexico
After graduating from high school, Jesus made the decision to return to Xalapa, Mexico.
By traveling to various states around the country, Jesus started to become educated on the history, tradition, and process that it takes to create indigenous textiles.
“I learned to differentiate the textiles from Xochistlahuaca and San Mateo del Mar by going there and speaking to the artisans,” Jesus said.
During travels, Jesus learned that in Hueyapan, Puebla the indigenous communities typically create embroidered wool ponchos because it’s a colder region in Mexico, while in San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca the artisans create Amuzgos made of cotton or fine threads because the temperatures are so hot.
“It has to do with geography and the motifs embroidered are part of the land and the values [of that region] from what I’ve observed,” Jesus said.
In addition to visiting each location in person, Jesus has also made an effort to learn more by reading about Mexican and Guatemalan textiles during their free time.
Though it has been difficult to find these resources, Jesus thinks it’s important to spend time researching the textiles in order to fully understand the pieces they are working with.
Jesus’ favorite books to use when researching textiles are “Arts and Crafts of Mexico” and “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art: Fomento Cultural Banamex.”
Launching an Online Shop
In 2015, Jesus started purchasing vintage pieces. After a friend saw the Vintage Jesus collection, she suggested they open an online business.
“I took 20 of my favorite pieces that I had collected over the years and I put them on Etsy and they started selling,” Jesus said.
Today, Jesus has been selling vintage textiles for about 5 years.
“We started very small. It got to be big enough to where we were building whole productions and shipping them,” Jesus said.
Is it Cultural Appropriation to Call a Huipil a Kaftan?
This question of “what is appropriate” was brought to light after Katy Perry was spotted wearing a huipil embroidered by Mexican artisans from San Juan Colorado, Oaxaca.
The image stirred up both controversy for a number of reasons, but primarily because the famous pop star purchased the garment from Pippa Holt––an Australian fashion designer based in Ireland––who sells huipiles branded as kaftans.
Pippa has been collaborating with Oaxacan artisans since 2016 and writes on her website that she “operates from a position of deep respect for Mexican culture. We are cultural appreciators, not appropriators. We don’t dictate; we co-create.”
But the question is, is it okay to brand a pre-Hispanic era garment with a new name? Is this cultural appropriation?
Is it Cultural Appropriation to brand a Pre-Hispanic garment with a new name?
“I call a huipil a huipil because it comes from Mexico and a kaftan a kaftan because it comes from somewhere in Morocco or Egypt. [I do this] out of respect and historical difference so that fact alone is enough for me,” Jesus said.
Jesus understands why the words have morphed, blended, and evolved over time, but thinks that brands and people should create a clear distinction in their minds out of respect for each culture.
Today, Jesus’ love for textiles has turned into something more than selling vintage pieces.
In fact, Jesus’ passion, led them to pursue a dream to become a well-known fashion designer.
And now, Jesus and their team work hard to repurpose damaged textiles, which have tears and holes, in order to bring them back to life. Some of Jesus’ recycled creations, include ruffled sleeves and taffeta skirts.
“We started repurposing because we were getting a lot of pieces that were damaged,” Jesus said.
Jesus’ ex-husband and business partner, Gabriel, who is also part of the team and works as a seamstress along with two other people.
And while Jesus does repurpose vintage textiles, they also understand that some of them need to be preserved due to the historic value.
“There are some textiles that I don’t get rid of because they are of museum quality,” Jesus said.
But this also begs the question, is it cultural appropriation to repurpose damaged pre-Hispanic garments?
Is it Cultural Appropriation to Re-Purpose Damaged Pre-Hispanic Garments?
“I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation if the approach is correct,” Jesus said.
The fashion designer states that it is important to be educated in the culture and to have a further understanding of the history behind each garment.
Launching a Couture Brand
Eventually, repurposing textiles, led Jesus to create their dream company, Les Jesus, a higher end brand where he makes custom garments, including wedding dresses.
“Our dream was to be fashion designers and we wanted to make a sell clothing,” Jesus said.
While the pieces from Les Jesus are more expensive, they take longer to make and are meant to be tailored for more special occasions.
“The idea is to make two seasons year,” Jesus said.
Les Jesus strives to weave and mix and match fashion pieces and textiles with more contemporary styles.
“We have a love of textiles. We have a love of costumes. We have a love of handmade embroidered objects,” Jesus said.
What is Your Main Purpose in Creating Vintage Jesus?
“My real purpose has always been visibility. My goal was to be seen as a legitimate part of society. Not just the part that was reserved for the service industry,” Jesus said.
Jesus hopes to show people that even though they are a part of many different marginalized communities, they too can dream of becoming an artist and turn that into reality.
“I never saw anyone like me being successful in the spaces or in the rooms that I have access to, which have always been reserved for white and Eurocentric idealistically acting people,” Jesus said.
By developing a brand like Vintage Jesus and a luxury brand like Les Jesus, Jesus hopes that others will see someone like Jesus as a legitimate part of society.
“That’s always been my goal and I think I’m achieving it. Visibility for someone that looks like me and who really lives in-between genders, cultures, being legal and illegal,” Jesus said.
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