Vogue Runway’s feature on T-shirt waste loom products created using “upcycled T-shirt weaving” by American designer Elise McMahon and textile artist Francesca Capone has received online backlash from Filipinos claiming it appropriates the basahan weaving technique.
The product was originally featured in an article by Vogue Fashion News Editor Sarah Spellings on Feb. 3 before being posted four days later to the Vogue Runway Instagram account.
Jan Vincent Gonzales, the Filipino American creative director and founder of Mercado Vicente, an index highlighting Filipino creatives, took to Instagram to point out that McMahon’s woven textiles use an existing, even ubiquitous, technique from the Philippines.
“Hey Vogue Runway, the basahan has been around for generations in the Philippines,” Gonzales stated in an Instagram post. “Why don’t you give that a little more light? Our people have inherently been sustainable. We just haven’t been labeled as such. But when a white person does the same thing, you applaud them and perpetuate this white savior narrative while demonizing other countries who are, in the end, having to answer for our country’s waste.”
Gonzales shared photos of the basahan, a Tagalog word for rags that are commonly used as potholders and doormats in the Philippines, which appear to have been made using the same technique that McMahon was credited with. He also named Filipino designers and artists, such as Kristoffer Ardeña and Carl Jan Cruz, who have re-imagined the basahan technique.
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One user commented, “When it’s a white woman, you get called ‘genius’ or ‘iconic,’ a literal savior of the fashion industry waste, when Southeast Asian women have been doing these for years.”
“Cool, but it makes me uncomfortable knowing there’s no acknowledgement of other cultures (like mine) that have upcycled fabrics for much, much, much longer that would probably benefit from exposure as well?” photographer Regine David said.
In a separate Instagram post, Gonzales further highlighted: “The conversation here isn’t just about appropriation, it’s about the fact that the system celebrates white mediocrity yet puts impossible standards for BIPOC to be able to be respected in the same regard. This issue isn’t a singular offense. Therefore, it needs to have active participation in changing the system in order to create proper representation and celebration of true and authentic talent.” In response to the heavy online criticism, McMahon released an apology on Instagram acknowledging the influence of the basahan weaving technique and explaining her product’s price point of $200.
She also highlighted the intent of her T-shirt waste loom line, which was inspired by a 1930’s weaving technique that gained popularity in America as a response to the industrialized waste problem in the U.S.
“I can see how the aesthetic of the resulting fabric, which results from using random t-shirts, looks the same as Basahan style fabric, and partly triggered this upset, especially after being posted on such a large platform like Vogue, next to me, a white American designer,” McMahon wrote. “I see this problem, it speaks to access, attention, opportunity. Upcycling at scale is often a type of work that has long been done by POC, in cultures different than my own, and often not necessary by choice but by obligation whether as a result of the global capitalist waste system or just necessity.”
“Rarely do these efforts get large scale media attention and this can feel especially hurtful/contradictory in the landscape of ‘sustainability,’ as newness gets most of the attention and tradition often gets ignored,” she added. “I agree this needs to change.”
In a statement to NextShark, Gonzales attributes his anger to the global accreditation and celebration of “white mediocrity,” such as that of a white American designer whose weaving technique has been present in the daily lives of many Filipinos.
“I’m not placing the sole blame on McMahon and Capone here. Because if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the entire system needs to be changed,” Gonzales stated. “Why do we need them to have our resourcefulness be digestible for the general public? Filipinos have been inherently sustainable with the situations that they’ve been given. We didn’t have to put ourselves in a ‘self-imposed residency’ as McMahon puts it. We just live it.”
“I’m tired of having to be ashamed of our Filipino-ness on the global stage until a white person deems it valid,” he added. “I’m exhausted from having to continuously prove our work is good enough to publications that don’t realize the impossible hierarchies and systems they’re creating against BIPOC. And I’m fed up with having our creative work that nods to our history and heritage deemed as cultural novelties as opposed to widely accepted art such as this.”
Gonzales’ wish is that McMahon will provide transparency into the profits of her featured product and donate an equitable portion to the communities with whom she worked. He also hopes the designer will advocate for a follow up Vogue article that includes proper accreditation for the weaving technique.
McMahon’s work focuses on sustainability and issues surrounding waste, which have led to her collaborations with upcycling organizations in Ghana and recycling centers in the U.S. In a statement shared with NextShark, she explained that it was her involvement in a local recycling project, involving a T-shirt weaving loom, that led to her Vogue feature. She also highlighted the fact she is not the inventor of “upcycled T-shirt weaving,” crediting the practice to “many cultures worldwide.”
“With this in mind, I have most recently learned about the long history of Basahan weaving in the Philippines and similar work weaving rags into mats in South East Asia,” McMahon told NextShark. “I am disappointed not to have learned about this previously in my own research or my design schooling, and it is sad but enlightening to recognize the work that needs to be done to learn more about the proper credited history of craft practices.”
“I am sorry to have hurt anyone who felt as though I ‘stole this idea’ or am trying to profit on other’s creations. I take responsibility for not being fully informed; however, I also take responsibility for taking the time to become informed moving forward, and I am doing just that,” she added. “I am speaking with journalists about focusing the conversation on contemporary Filipino creatives I have learned about through this experience as well as looking for links where I could work to support the artisans behind this practice.”
With the issue still fueling online discussions, McMahon is currently engaging in conversations and learning from her peers. She has spoken to Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, the founder of Philippines-based social enterprise Rags2RichesInc, about their work and a possible collaboration.
“I hope we can all move forward from this conversation with more empathy and more opportunities for impactful action as that is my ongoing intention,” McMahon stated.