The brand allegedly replicated designs from local artisans in a small community of under 2,000 people

By Kaitlyn Frey
April 18, 2019 11:06 AM
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The high-end Italian fashion brand, Max Mara, is coming under fire for allegedly ripping off its designs from a small Laotian community.

The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is accusing Max Mara of unethically stealing its designs from a local ethnic group in Laos called the Oma. The Oma, a small agricultural community of fewer than 2,000 people, live in Northern Laos, northwestern Vietnam and southern China, and are known for making detailed clothing with indigo dye and red embroidery with patterns that resemble the dresses designed by Max Mara, which are retailing for $795.

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The TAEC is an organization based in Luang Prabang, Laos that helps indigenous artisans sell their goods. In a letter written to Max Mara and shared on the TAEC’s Facebook page the group clarified that they have not been hired by the Oma people and have no contractual obligations to them, but have been in communication with the Oma about the issue and their involvement.

“TAEC simply discovered your company’s wrongdoing, and as a supporter of the cultural heritage and livelihoods of the Oma and other ethnic minority groups, we felt it our responsibility to get involved,” TAEC wrote to Max Mara.

The organization points out that they are not asserting that what Max Mara designed was illegal, as the Oma have not trademarked their designs, but write, “What Max Mara has done 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.”

“Let’s be clear, these designs are not ‘inspired by’ or ‘an interpretation of’ Oma motifs; they are copied. The color, composition, and motifs are exact replicas, so besides being lazy and unoriginal design work, it’s also direct plagiarism,” the TAEC wrote in an Instagram post.

“The power imbalance here couldn’t be more stark — an international fashion brand profiting off the traditional designs of ethnic minority artisans in rural Southeast Asia. Acknowledging and compensating artisans for their work and creativity, no matter who they are and where they come from, is important,” the statement from the TAEC continues.

The TAEC is asking Max Mara to pull the replicated clothing from its website and stores and donate 100% of the sales already earned to an organization that “advocates for the intellectual property rights of ethnic minorities.”

TAEC said that the brand has responded to them, but asked them not to publish their response. “Max Mara has responded but unfortunately, they have not admitted any wrongdoing, nor have they committed to acknowledge the Oma or fulfill any of our requests to rectify this situation,” TAEC wrote in an Instagram post. “In fact, they have instructed us to remove our Facebook posts on the subject. They have also asked that their message to us remain confidential, and we will respect that.”

PEOPLE has reached out to Max Mara for comment.