Juarez Chic? Fashion Companies Make Wrong Turn at the Border


Laura and Kate Mulleavy (pictured below), the sisters behind avant-garde fashion label Rodarte, recently took a road trip to the Texas-Mexico border. With Ciudad Juarez in mind, they designed couture that reflects the gloom of the troubled Mexican industrial city across from El Paso, Texas.

The line, developed in collaboration with Estee Lauder's (EL) M.A.C. Cosmetics, features off-white chiffon and lace garments and lipstick and nail polish in shades such as Factory, Sleepwalker, Juarez and Ghost Town. There is even a light-pink blush called Quinceanera, in homage to the traditional Mexican coming-of-age party for 15-year-old girls. The sisters were inspired by the "lines of women workers making their way to factory jobs in the middle of the night," according to a company press release.

Exploitation or Inspiration?

Not everyone has applauded the efforts to bottle up the women of Juarez. Beauty bloggers and border activists accused the designers of exploiting the sordid lives of poor women, and the estimated 800 victims who have died since 1993 either in what the Mexican government has called a femicide or in Juarez's increasingly vicious drug war.

"It is absolutely exploitive [sic] of women's pain and grossly not in touch with the role that globalization is playing in the perpetuation of systemic forms of discrimination against women," said Elvia Arriola, executive director of the U.S. nonprofit Women on the Border.

"Words fail me..." wrote Mizz Worthy. "It doesn't need to be said that their choice of names for these products was ill thought out and in poor taste. For both MAC and Rodarte to romanticize a place which is so full of violence, misogyny, and exploitation against women is baffling to me," scorned the UK blogger of Healing Beauty.

Many of Juarez's female victims were maquiladora workers between the ages of 12 and 22 who had migrated to Juarez for the "opportunity" to earn $15 a day. Most of the killings remain unsolved.

Last week, M.A.C. announced it will donate $100,000 to a Ciudad Juarez charity and will change some of the product names. The Mulleavys, who could not be reached, issued the following: "We recognize that the violence against women taking place in Juarez needs to be met with proactive action. We never intended to make light of this serious issue and we are truly sorry." The sisters went on to say that the M.A.C. collaboration was "intended as a celebration of the beauty of the landscape and people in the areas that we traveled."

An online petition launched Thursday demanding the cosmetics firm and fashion house donate all the proceeds of the Juarez line has generated 183 signatures by Friday morning. "I believe M.A.C. and Rodarte can afford to dig deeper, much deeper," said Tracey Hollom, among the petition's signers.

In a press release issued Friday, the team at M.A.C. and Rodarte said: "The response over the past week to the upcoming M.A.C Rodarte makeup collection has educated us more fully on the extremely difficult circumstances of the women of Juarez. We are deeply sorry that the M.A.C Rodarte makeup collection offended people. It was in no way inspired by the reprehensible violence against women in Juarez."

The companies will announce their charitable initiative in the next few weeks, the release said.

Crossing the Border from Edgy to Offensive

The collection, which debuts Sept. 15, reflects a city in its death throes. Models in white dresses of tattered lace in photographs released in June appear to be the ghosts of the city's female victims and the opal nail polish reflects the grim factories people in the city's outskirts are bussed to in the early dawn.

Indeed, the harsh reality of Juarez isn't pretty. The fight for control of lucrative drug routes into the U.S. has killed more than 5,000 people in this city of 1.8 million in less than three years. The misery has only been compounded by a global recession that last year drove unemployment from virtually zero to 20%. A majority of workers toil in the region's 339 maquiladoras on assembly lines that make the TVs, kitchen appliances and car parts for American consumers.

Rodarte, which counts Michelle Obama, Chloe Sevigny and Cate Blanchett among its many celebrity clients, is known for being edgy. And this is not the first time the theme of urban disintegration has been taken up by the Mulleavy sisters, who graduated in 2001 from the University of California, Berkeley, with liberal arts degrees. Last fall's collection was inspired by a piece of insulation the sisters spotted on the side of a freeway near Los Angeles, according to the Rodarte Web site.

The fashion house has made its mark by deviating from the traditional mandate to create clothing based on predominant standards of beauty, instead incorporating art theory and political statements into their designs. In a January issue of The New Yorker, fashion critic Amanda Fortini described the duo as "the most celebrated American designers working today."

"Their recent designs, while arresting, do not perform the simple duty of most women's clothing-to make the wearer look either pretty or sexy," Fortini wrote.

Wonder what the women of Ciudad Juarez think?