Luxury fashion label Max Mara has been accused of ripping off the traditional clothing designs of a remote ethnic minority group, fuelling debate about the ethics behind how brands source pattern ideas.
Max Mara has broken its silence on the controversy, telling The New Daily it was “completely unaware” that the “decoration” featured on its recent collection of resort wear may be that of the unique craftsmanship of the Oma people.
Campaigners, who argue they are sticking up for the rights of the tiny agricultural group living in the mountains in northern Laos, north-west Vietnam and southern China, have accused the Italian fashion brand of stealing traditional designs.
- Find out more on the investigation into fashion ethics here
Advocacy group Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) co-director Tara Gujadhur said the hand-made textiles of the Oma were a source of pride and cultural significance to the community.
“To see (the designs) reduced to a printed pattern on a mass-produced garment is heartbreaking,” Ms Gujadhur said.
The Oma people are known as master weavers, painstakingly stitching colourful garments and headscarves adorned with coins and pom poms.
A typical Oma garment is recognisable by its unique hand embroidery, stitching and red designs.
It is these distinctive patterns that the TAEC has accused Max Mara of copying for their ‘Weekend Max Mara’ resort line. The collection includes a cotton poplin dress retailing for $827.
Head of Nanam village Khampheng Loma said the Oma people used the designs for important cultural and community events such as funeral rites.
“Our grandparents passed down these traditions to our parents, and our parents to us,” Mr Loma said.
“We are the Oma people, and we preserve our culture by making and wearing our traditional clothes.”
The advocacy group has not alleged that Max Mara’s designs are illegal as the Oma have not trademarked their designs – only that it is unethical.
“For a company of your size, of any size, to profit from the sales of designs that are not original, without approval, acknowledgement or compensation, is undeniably wrong,” TAEC wrote in a letter to Max Mara, which was shared in a Facebook post.
TAEC has been lobbying for Max Mara to pull the clothing line from its stores, publicly commit to never plagiarise designs and to donate all proceeds earned from the sale of the garments to an organisation that advocates for the intellectual property rights of ethnic minorities.
The debate has been gaining in Laos and abroad, and more than 5000 people have signed a petition in support of TAEC’s demands.
However Max Mara, in a statement to The New Daily, raised questions about whether the advocacy group was even acting on behalf of the Oma people.
“Max Mara was completely unaware of the fact that such decoration may be part of Oma traditional craftsmanship, and firmly affirms its absolute good faith,” Max Mara said in its statement.
“TAEC has admitted it does not represent the Oma group and does not assert the use of the decoration in contention is illegal.”
But TAEC argued “plagiarism is wrong, whether the plagiarised feel wronged or not”.
— TAEC (@TAEC_LAOS) April 23, 2019
In an article in the local English-language news, The Laotian Times, TAEC seemed to point to a distinction between how advocates viewed the alleged design theft and the views of the Oma people.
TAEC’s Thongkhoun Soutthivilay, who the paper said worked closely with Oma women, was quoted as saying: “The artisans we work with live in a very remote community, so their life experience is completely removed from issues of intellectual property rights … we will continue to discuss it with them, as we recognise this as an important, long-term process”.
- Visit the Fashion Transparency Index 2019 report to find out about how Max Mara and other major brands were rated on human rights and sustainability disclosures
TAEC wrote that letting corporate misbehaviour “go unchecked is dangerous” and there needed to be oversight to stop companies taking ideas and work from people who lacked the education or resources to stand up for their rights.
“It sends the message that creative work that is traditional and shared by a community and culture in the developing world does not deserve the same kind of protections given to contemporary designs by individual ‘artists’ in the West,” it wrote.
TAEC’s museum shops in Luang Prabang sells the wears of the Oma people, working with more than 30 communities across Laos.
The Laotian Times reported that 50 per cent of the proceeds from TAEC shops flow directly to artisans.