A debacle struck social media after the famous French luxury brand Louis Vuitton premiered their Basotho Plaid menswear last week – just a few years after their first Basotho blanket-inspired collection – and the range went for R33 000. Louis Vuitton South Africa confirmed that all the blankets are sold out in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The Vuitton range features a small cashmere and wool version of the Mountain Kingdom’s famous blankets, which have been used in sacred rituals for centuries. The Vuitton blanket references a blue and yellow version of a traditional Seanamarena design, with an exaggerated graphic maize cob and giraffe dominating the pattern. The blankets also include the yellow “wearing stripes” which traditionally designate the direction a blanket should be worn. Local designers and the public went to social media to share their opinions about the collection.
Clearing the air by looking into the origin of the basotho blanket
The blanket’s origins can be traced back to the European traders and missionaries as far back as the 1800s. The popularity and assimilation of the blankets by the Basotho people can be traced back to one single incident : A blanket was presented to the then King, King Moshoeshoe I in 1860 by a man by the name of Mr. Howel. The King was by all accounts quite taken with the blanket (“a handsome railway wrapper made of light blue pilot cloth, heavy and hairy”) and wore the blanket in preference to his then neglected traditional leopard skin karosses.- Source – Maliba-lodge
The blanket has since become part of not only the basotho people’s everyday life but as a status symbol. To outsiders it became a mark of ethnicity and therefore a token of cultural identification. In fact Lesotho is the only nation south of the Sahara that illustrates the culture of an entire nation through such an individualistic item such as the tribal blanket.
South African designers are not happy.
“The sad part of the situation, for me, is that the African consumer would rather consume the Louis Vuitton version than support small businesses who are already offering the same products,” said designer Thabo Makheta. Makheta, a Mosotho herself, regularly uses the blankets in her designs. “It’s unfortunate that a luxury European brand is preferred by those African consumers,” she says.
On the Louis Vuitton website, a model drapes the blanket over his arm, like a shawl. Vuitton says their blanket should “complete the look” of their “African theme” Spring/Summer 2017 men’s collection. In the campaign images the model wears a shirt featuring the same pattern that has been “tailored from fluid silk”, they say, adding that the “luxurious shirt features an abstract African blanket and giraffe design”. Online audiences had a field day when the images of the pictures went viral, with accusations of cultural appropriation coming down on the brand.
“I feel like LV ‘plaid’ enough with our culture. Damn Culture Vultures,” said Dona Soprana on Instagram. Another Instagram user, going by the name Afro_Judee added, “Damn, I hate these mainstream brands. Wowza! No authenticity … at all.”
Makheta remains pragmatic about the situation. “Look, Prada once produced a paper clip with a price tag of $185 000, so it’s not surprising. So now I’m tired of getting offended from these things. Because so many Europeans have been taking inspiration from Africa, there is a growing support for locally produced items. But maybe it’s time for us to also pull up our socks, and then once we’ve done that we can argue with the consumer about buying the local product.