Frida Kahlo, the most popular and recognisable Mexican artist in the world, died in 1954 and since then, her image has been appropriated to generate a plethora of consumer products. Her face has been emblazoned on everything from ash-trays to make-up to tequila.
Most recently, Shein, a Chinese fast fashion brand, unveiled a new collaboration with the Frida Kahlo Corporation (FKC), which features various items of clothing, alongside notepads, socks, pillows and tote bags featuring portraits of the artist, in her characteristic vibrant florals and bright colours.
The FKC expresses itself as “dedicated to educating, sharing and preserving Frida Kahlo’s art, image and legacy,” however many fans feel as if this decision was not made with Kahlo’s interests in mind at all. Unfortunately, according to El País, the company control 51% of Kahlo’s trademark whilst her family holds 49%.
The fast fashion brand’s use of her work, influenced heavily by her anti-capitalist ideologies, presents a visible contradiction. Shein unveiled the collection as a “tribute, to her art and originality, her use of colour and love for Mexican folklore,” further describing Kahlo as personifying “female empowerment, and authenticity.”
However, this commodification of her image dismisses her anti-capitalist views – presumably because her views challenge the very existence of the company as a fast fashion brand.
Online, many fans of the artist and those critical of fast fashion brands expressed their anger that FKC would allow Shein to create an entire collection featuring Kahlo. The photos from the collaboration show predominantly white models, all with strong unibrows and Frida’s signature hairstyle, topped with a crown made out of flowers.
The models are seen wearing clothes with her portrait emblazoned all over, as well as flowers similar to those painted by the artist on her canvases. On one sweater by the brand, the portrait of the painter is accompanied by the expression: “Frida, the queen of selfies”.
Kahlo was a proud communist, and during her funeral she famously had the hammer & sickle banner draped over her open casket. Her political alignment is part of her identity, and she is equally recognised as a feminist icon, a proud woman who refused to alter her appearance to fit the white-centric standard of beauty. She is celebrated in Mexico for her devotion to Mexican and indigenous culture and praised by feminists for her depiction of the female experience and form.
Whilst Shein recognises Kahlo’s significance to both art and feminism, the company fails to recognise its own existence as a direct contradiction to her anti-capitalist beliefs. Shein was recently valued at $100 billion, comfortably surpassing H&M and Zara’s combined value. This shows the extent of the success of the online-only retailer, as only two years ago they were valued at $11.5 billion.
Shein has repeatedly come under fire for being an amoral company, and have been accused of stealing designs from independent designers, poor working conditions and ethical practices, high levels of toxic chemicals in garments and mishandling customer data.
According to the Fashion Transparency Index 2022, Shein also received a score in the lowest bracket of 0-5%, which is reserved for brands who reveal “nothing at all or very limited number of policies”.
Still, despite their controversies, Shein has firmly cemented itself as a Gen-Z favourite. Some customers herald it as inclusive, as they carry larger sizes where its competitors often do not, whereas others condemn the business for the impact of its practices on life and lives.
“Shein’s meteoric rise is taking fast fashion, an already resource-depleting model in environmental and social terms, to fresh depths, carving out a new category: ultra-fast fashion,” Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, told us.
“The industry was designed to maximise profit at any cost, so radical action must be taken to rebuild it to include equity, racial and climate justice. Fashion is something we all take part in. It’s a social, creative, economic, and cultural set of activities that can contribute to the world, not just take from it.
“We need to take away the licence to do harm. Last week the European Environmental Agency announced a crackdown on fast fashion and the UK government has been urged to follow suit,” Williams added.
“It will take governments, universities and businesses working together to fulfil our collective responsibility to protect our planet and industry for future generations. Nothing less than radical change is required to avoid 4ºC warming. There is no life, let alone fashion, in that world.”
Prior to this, in 2018 the FKC approved a collaboration with Mattel to release a Barbie doll of the artist as part of their “Inspiring Women” collection, and this decision was met with resistance from Kahlo’s family.
Kahlo’s family alleged that the rights to the feminist icon’s image had been stolen and Mattel is not allowed to base a figurine on her. The family have also accused Mattel of distorting Kahlo’s appearance and disregarding the values the artist, who used her work to explore questions of post-colonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society.
The family had found the Barbie doll too far from reality because that version of Frida Kahlo appeared thinner, with ‘whiter’ features and less full eyebrows.
This was legally challenged by the family, and they won: ending distribution of the doll in Mexico (though they continue to sell in the rest of the world).
It remains to be seen if Kahlo’s family will regain control over Frida’s name, image, and legacy. More than 68 years after her death, Frida Kahlo’s work and image has been repeatedly capitalised by the FKC, minimising her importance as a feminist, anti-capitalist Mexican artist.