If in the coming weeks you start spotting well-heeled fashion fans clad in items that remind you very much of the iconic red and purple-blue shuka worn by the East African Maasai, your mind isn't playing tricks on you.
The shuka is an integral part of the design for Louis Vuitton's Spring Summer 2012 collection, unveiled last summer but hitting the stores now. Louis Vuitton's men's style director Kim Jones spent his childhood in Africa, and, according to the New York Times, started his role at the label with a mission to "embrace, via the luxury label’s travel history, the craft and culture of Africa."
Fair enough, and fashion designers using traditional fabrics from other parts of the world is nothing new, but as is often the case when something African influences something western with no obvious benefit to Africa, the collection provoked a far bit of outrage online, along the lines of "Louis Vuitton steals the Kenyan Shuka for its Spring Summer 2012 collection".
Frankly, I am in complete agreement with ARISE magazine's editor Helen Jennings when she says "I still encourage any trend that keeps accents of Africa in the mainstream lexicon of fashion", and this is one such case. It's not as if Louis Vuitton are trying to hide the source of Kim Jones' inspiration.
What I'm more concerned about is the degree to which we fail to appreciate the value of our own culture until someone else recognises and validates it - then we think, "cool" - or starts making money off it, then we cry foul! The asset value of natural resources like gold, oil and diamonds is more immediately apparent to us than that of our cultural heritage and expressions, but when you look at the tourism revenues of countries like the UK and France, a good chunk of those revenues are made up of protected and cleverly packaged culture exported to all corners of the world. We need to do much better in this area.
The Maasai's shuka has probably been in the public domain for quite some time, and so couldn't be patented (for more on patenting our cultural heritage, please check "To patent or not to patent"), but why weren't any of our designers showing the world the kind of funky modern designs possible from this one pattern? This particular issue isn't merely down to designers though, it's also the failure of us as consumers in that we still crave western labels more than we do our own, so even if local designers had tapped the shuka for inspiration most of us probably wouldn't have payed much attention. But imagine a world in which we did value our cultural artefacts more, one in which the shuka were a systematically-protected artefact and in which our designers knew we were more eager to wear their creations than we were to sing about Gucci in hip-hop videos. There'd be a higher likelihood that some of our designers would be willing to pay a license fee to riff off the shuka, which would have the additional benefit of channelling some money the Maasai's way. (Incidentally, re name-checking western designer labels, what are we doing giving free publicity to brands most of us can't afford anyway? I know some people might go "Duh! That's the whole point!", but is a point that misses the big picture a point worth making?)
Influences and ideas in our globalised world are becoming increasingly fluid, flowing every which way and mixing with influences from myriad sources. This is a good thing, provided we're not giving away the crown jewels and getting very little back in return. Or as some other person commented on reading about the Louis Vuitton collection, "this is nearly as bad as the slave trade itself where instead of massive cheap labour, here we are giving away our heritage and ideas for free." We need to think more about the consequences of our hunger for western validation and cultural goods, and about the fact that we keep failing to see that all round us are examples of things that other people are only too happy to snap up, riff off, rebrand and sell back to us while we're busy gazing with longing at their window display.
This won't be the last time a western designer taps Africa for inspiration – Kim Jones, Marc Jacobs and a whole bunch of others are probably already sitting on sketches of 2013 collections based on other expressions of African culture – so we'd better hurry up and establish national systems for registering and protecting our processes and cultural expressions (as well as our traditional knowledge of the curative properties of certain plants), and for commercialising them in a ways that recognise that packaging does not have to remain frozen in "tradition", the sort of tradition that encourages some Europeans and Americans to make generalisations about "tribal people living as one with wildlife."
If we don't, we will end up having to fight to re-appropriate our own identity. Decades of Africa-inspired design hasn't "inspired" many Europeans to stop seeing Africans as "tribal", "primal" or, at best, "exotic" (which is why some fashion photographers still think it's OK or edgy to shoot white European models against a backdrop of brown "natives" somewhere in Africa), so it's up to us to support and value African culture, design and brands a lot more than we do now, and think about the way we can determine how we are seen in the world via our exploitation and presentation of our culture.
Who knows, perhaps one day white Europeans will be as astonished as we are to see ads like this Dutch one in which the narrator wonders if the Maasai people's ability to jump high came about because a Dutch guy brought this brand of breakfast food to East Africa in 1883.