Regulating Style: Intellectual Property Law and the Business of Fashion in Guatemala

Regulating Style: Intellectual Property Law and the Business of Fashion in Guatemala

by Kedron Thomas

Paperback(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Fashion knockoffs are everywhere. Even in the out-of-the-way markets of highland Guatemala, fake branded clothes offer a cheap, stylish alternative for people who cannot afford high-priced originals. Fashion companies have taken notice, ensuring that international trade agreements include stronger intellectual property protections to prevent brand “piracy.” In Regulating Style, Kedron Thomas approaches the fashion industry from the perspective of indigenous Maya people who make and sell knockoffs, asking why they copy and wear popular brands, how they interact with legal frameworks and state institutions that criminalize their livelihood, and what is really at stake for fashion companies in the global regulation of style.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290976
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kedron Thomas is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is coeditor, with Kevin Lewis O’Neill, of Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala.

Read an Excerpt

Regulating Style

Intellectual Property Law and the Business of Fashion in Guatemala

By Kedron Thomas


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96486-0


Economic Regulation and the Value of Concealment

Guillermo Ordóñez owned one of the garment workshops in which I spent time cutting and sewing garments in Tecpán Guatemala in 2009. A forty-year-old Kaqchikel Maya man, Guillermo specialized in making youth sweaters and sweatshirts featuring the logos of globally popular fashion brands, such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister. Typical of the regional trade, his business occupied a cinder-block room built onto the back of his home. Teenage boys rode their bikes from the outskirts of town or from nearby hamlets each day to operate the half-dozen Juki sewing machines imported from Japan and the two Universal knitting machines from Germany, shouting to one another in Kaqchikel, the primary indigenous language spoken in this part of Guatemala, over the mechanical noise. Although it could barely be heard, the radio played bachata and reggaeton music.

Guillermo's relationship to the apparel trade was forged in the early 1970s, when his father purchased a knitting machine from a salesperson in Guatemala City. For the next ten years, his father made baby hats and blankets at their home in Xenimajuyu', a small hamlet outside of Tecpán. He would leave the village late at night to arrive early in Guatemala City on market days. Guillermo's mother, Doña Eugenia, explained in Kaqchikel, "My husband walked the path from Xenimajuyu' to Tecpán. He carried the hats and blankets in a bag. Then he rode to Guatemala City to sell to mayoristas" — here, she used the Spanish word for "wholesalers" — "and some of the hats would go to El Salvador." Her eyes lit up when she talked about how the little hats she helped her husband make ended up in another country. "There was no market for baby clothes around here back then because everyone made their own. But in El Salvador, they didn't make these things, so we could always sell what we made." At that time, the capital served as an international trading post for the Central American market. In many such stories that people told me about the early years of the apparel trade, Guatemala City is remembered as a vibrant center of economic life and a gateway to distant places.

Things changed quickly for Guillermo and his family when, in 1982, at the height of the country's internal armed conflict, his father was killed not far from their rural home. His body was discovered in the woods outside Xenimajuyu'. Guillermo's father was one of many in the region to meet his fate at the hands of soldiers, state-sponsored death squads, and armed civil patrols acting on government orders (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico 1999). The military strategically targeted indigenous professionals and business owners, though the particular circumstances surrounding Guillermo's father's death remain unknown.

This chapter recounts Guillermo's story — the history of his family's involvement in the apparel trade and the business style on which his modest success is based — and that of several other apparel manufacturers as a means of giving historical and ethnographic shape to an industry that is today largely and strategically hidden from outsiders. Maya manufacturers who once carefully conformed to state regulations now conceal their work from tax agents, police, and other state authorities, and sometimes also from one another. The regional trade has been transformed by state-sponsored violence and the more recent advent of free trade regimes that privilege multinational capital over local industry and encourage state government to target informal enterprises as sites of criminality and delinquency. The transformation of the trade from a state-regulated sector to one operating out of sight of state agencies runs counter to the master narratives that are so central to international projects of modernization and development, which tell of economies moving naturally and progressively from less formal to more formal relationships to the state. These narratives also include the idea that such an evolution brings about material benefits for the regulated, "developing" populations. At the same time as the historical processes and transformations evident in the apparel trade disrupt such neat accounts, the characterization of the trade as "informal" obscures ongoing and important relationships to the state and to legal regimes and ignores the regulatory practices of multiple sets of actors who exercise control over apparel manufacturing, markets, and meanings of work on regional and national levels. This chapter draws on social scientific analyses of the informal economy in Latin America and anthropological studies of economic regulation to parse out the "regulating style" that structures highland business practice and business ethics, a style that contrasts with the models of development and regulation enshrined in international trade and legal agreements. This chapter thus contributes to economic anthropology by analyzing the historical embedding of an industry and particular modes of regulation and ways of doing business amid dynamic social and market processes and in view of a local moral world where norms and values other than those privileged in international development and IP law shape the kinds of work that people do and the business ethics that they espouse.

While Maya manufacturers place tremendous value on secrecy and the concealment of their business practices from outsiders, they also actively share business knowledge, information, and resources across networks of kin and neighbors in Tecpán and the surrounding region, and they teach what they know to younger Maya men, whom they encourage to start their own workshops. What I term the "pedagogical imperative" is as much an ethical dictum as it is a means to several ends, including the spurring of what indigenous manufacturers describe as economic development in Tecpán and the maintenance of long-term social relations. In this chapter and the next, I describe the moral contours of sharing and pedagogy and demonstrate how this commitment has its own regulatory effects on the trade. I argue that the tension between, on the one hand, secrecy and concealment and, on the other, sharing and pedagogy conditions the dialectical movement through which business and regulating styles are elaborated in the highlands. This tension will be important in later chapters for understanding how copying matters for and is evaluated by Maya workshop owners.


Guillermo's family history is typical in many ways. Beginning in the late 1950s, Maya men and women in several highland towns — such as Totonicapán, San Francisco El Alto, Quetzaltenango, and San Pedro Sacatepéquez, to name the most prominent — took up nontraditional apparel production. Such activities were structured either as cottage industries or as small-scale, independent manufacturing firms (C. A. Smith 1984, 1989; Hendrickson 1995; Ehlers 2000; Fischer 2001; Ortez 2004; Goldin 2009). It was around 1960 that a handful of indigenous men in the rural hamlets around Tecpán bought semi-industrial knitting and sewing machines from dealers in Guatemala City. Many of these manufacturers focused their production on baby clothes or men's and women's sweaters in the early years, and the town continues to be well known for those items, even though workshops produce a wide variety of garments today. Tecpán's centrality, in relation to the capital city (88 kilometers to the southeast along the Pan-American Highway) and Western highland markets (Quetzal tenango, currently Guatemala's second largest city, sits 116 kilometers away), facilitated the integration of these businesses into Central American commercial networks. The burgeoning industry, which has been an "economic revolution for Tecpán," as one gray-haired manufacturer put it to me in 2007, offered new opportunities for Tecpán's indigenous population, whose traditional household economy, based in subsistence agriculture, was under threat by state-corporate alliances and a growing population.

As Carol A. Smith (1984) documents, more and more indigenous Guatemalans were being pushed out of traditional agriculture in the mid-twentieth century through land privatization schemes orchestrated by the state in tandem with large-scale agricultural enterprises that were investing in export production for US and European markets. Wage labor options were historically limited to seasonal work arrangements on the highland coffee fincas and coastal sugar and cotton plantations (Fischer 2001). Unlike plantation labor, garment manufacturing allowed tecpanecos control over the means of production, an important cultural and moral value among Maya peoples (Watanabe 1992). Manufacturers need no formal education, which is important, since only half of the Maya children in the department of Chimaltenango (where Tecpán is located) who enroll in school complete their education through the sixth grade (Ministerio de Educación de Guatemala 2008). Also, the trade requires minimal capital investment. In 2009, a used manual knitting machine cost around one thousand quetzales (US$125), and thread, yarn, and cloth distributors routinely sell on credit.

After Guillermo's father's death, Guillermo's mother, Eugenia, moved the family into Tecpán's semi-urban core, onto a small lot that a brother-in-law had purchased several years before. Their relocation from rural village to town center reflects wider trends in the apparel trade, and in Guatemala's history more generally. The initial wave of growth in the apparel trade took place in a handful of rural hamlets outside of Tecpán, though most manufacturers eventually moved their operations into the town center. Sometimes, these relocations were economically motivated; workshop owners wanted to be closer to bus routes and potential customers, have more space for employees, and hook up to electricity to run the newer, more industrial machinery that had become available by the early 1970s. However, a massive earthquake hit central Guatemala in February 1976, forcing many of the small-time clothing producers who were still living in the hamlets surrounding Tecpán out of their crumbled adobe homes. Concrete-block structures organized around central courtyards and painted in vibrant shades of green, blue, and yellow — in keeping with the aesthetic effervescence of highland style — became the new architectural model for Tecpán thereafter.

Other producers, including Guillermo's father, remained in the hamlets until the late 1970s, when genocidal violence against the Maya people began as part of the internal armed conflict. Between 1979 and 1983, the Guatemalan Army stepped up its so-called counterinsurgency campaign. Official reports issued by the Catholic Church and the United Nations estimate that two hundred thousand Maya people were killed during the conflict, most of them during this four-year period of intensified violence. Indigenous business owners and political activists (individuals were often both) were frequent victims of kidnappings and killings (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico 1999). Rural indigenous populations were more likely to be suspected of guerrilla activity, and many families who had had some success in garment manufacturing in the hamlets moved to Tecpán's urban core at this time, attempting to escape the threat of the military's combination of scorched-earth tactics and targeted assassinations. The town has continued to grow at a rapid pace; the population doubled between 1996 — when the peace accords that ended the war were signed — and 2010. These movements follow a broader trend of urbanization in Guatemala, as rural people migrate to towns and cities with the aid of kin connections, seeking new possibilities for education and wage-based work (O'Neill and Thomas 2011).

Guillermo's mother eventually built a small house, where she continued to make children's clothing, which she sold in Guatemala City to support her family, making her one of only a few women in Tecpán, past or present, to manage her own clothing business. Men are positioned generally as owners, managers, and salespeople within the regional trade. Young men operate the machines. Women are relegated to doing hand-embroidery work, sewing on adornments, finishing seams, or packaging garments, tasks that are considered either more delicate or easier than the jobs the men do. Eugenia's five children worked alongside her in their home, each of them learning first how to sew buttons and mend sweater-knit fabric. Eventually, the three boys took over the role of operating the growing number of knitting and sewing machines in their workshop. When the children were old enough to attend primary school, their morning classes and afternoon homework took priority over garment production, as Eugenia considered education to be the primary means for the next generation to better its economic standing. She had learned to speak Spanish only after her husband's passing, when market dealings in Guatemala City demanded it. She learned to read and write in Spanish under the patient tutelage of a wholesaler in the capital, who, as she explained, "felt sympathy for her." Guillermo attended some university courses in the capital before marrying a Kaqchikel woman, at which time he received gifts of capital from his mother and uncle, which he invested in a set of well-worn industrial sewing machines. His sisters pursued teaching careers, but his brothers also remained in the garment industry. In 2009, one brother operated a set of industrial embroidery machines used to adorn other people's clothing stock with popular brand names, sports insignia, and cartoon characters; the other marketed school uniforms around the highlands. Guillermo's family history traces the rural-urban migration path followed by so many apparel producers in the early decades of the industry, and it highlights the importance of kin in the growth and expansion of the trade. The entanglements of state-sponsored brutalization and economic aspirations that drove these trends continue to shape how apparel manufacturing is organized and regulated at local and regional levels. An enduring ethos of sharing, networking, striving, and overcoming defines the industry in many ways and lies at the core of what it means to be a Maya businessman in Tecpán and throughout the highlands.


The apparel trade in the highlands has expanded in large measure through kinship and apprenticeship connections. A commitment to training others and sharing knowledge, skills, and even material resources between individuals and across generations powerfully shapes the business style of indigenous manufacturers. As with Guillermo's family, people who are already established in the business help younger men get started, teaching them the necessary skills and providing gifts of capital and loans. Kinship patterns in Tecpán are patrilineal, favoring the father's line (Fischer and Hendrickson 2002: 46). A new bride commonly goes to live with her husband and his family. It is customary for the new couple to remain with the husband's family until a proper home has been prepared for them on the family's land; due to this system, the plots get smaller with each successive generation. More commonly in Tecpán's semi-urban center, new rooms are built onto the house to allow space for the expansion of the family. In Guillermo's case, by the time he got married, his mother's house had already been added to and divided up twice in order to accommodate his older brothers' wives and children. Somewhat reluctantly, therefore, he and his mother agreed that he would build a house on land owned by his new wife's family (her parents had no sons to inherit the plot). This arrangement has been particularly difficult for his mother, who longs for him and his children to be under the same roof with her and as attentive as the other family members with whom she shares living space. Nevertheless, Eugenia is proud that the difficult years she spent making and selling clothing in a market dominated by men provided Guillermo and his two brothers with sufficient resources to earn a living.


Excerpted from Regulating Style by Kedron Thomas. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Economic Regulation and the Value of Concealment 35

2 The Ethics of Piracy 68

3 Brand Pollution 101

4 Fiscal and Moral Accountability 145

5 Making the Highlands Safe for Business 184

Conclusion: Late Style 227

Notes 243

References 255

Index 285

Customer Reviews