In recollection it was a few months ago when I read a short BBC article on how the Maasai were fighting for trademark rights, royalties and intellectual property. For those of you who do not know who the Maasai are, they are a nomadic nilotic group who live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania (please do Wikipedia them for some basic details.)
In recent years their traditional print has exploded in many places in the fashion sphere. Their jewelry has been used for editorials that want to seem ethnic and even been the basis of full collections by companies such as Louis Vuitton. The greatest issue with this type of cultural placement is doubled by two factors. The first being the fact that the Maasai peoples do not receive any monetary compensation when their traditional attire is used and reproduced by retailers. This perpetuates the second issue which is the abuse of sacred textiles and beading patters. Some prints are used only for wedding ceremonies or coming of age celebrations. To have them reproduced on the whim of some dude (or chick) in a board room is to me a violation of the greatest kind. If this doesn't really make an impact just imagine someone wearing a wedding dress to a funeral, and not giving two hoots that they are mixing up the emotional connotation of one event at another.
From the perspective of Western capitalism, this is not surprising. What is culture to the monolithic giant LVMH (parent company of some mega brands including the aforementioned Louis V)? This is not to say that this is the only level at which the Maasai and other African garments are being abused. I also add the numerous people who are not African who start up businesses that use prints, sell items at an outrageous markup and 'donate a portion to charity' as seen here and here. It would be better for all parties if they supported the real African talent that is struggling to be seen on the world wide stage.
As to why I am bringing this issue up? My skirt is the traditional shuka style. It was purchased back home in Kenya and as far as I know does not infringe on the sanctity of the Maasai people and their culture. When people talk about ethical fashion. They always stop after the environment. Perhaps we need to discuss the importance of ethics as pertaining to culture. I believe that if we don't then there is another implicit colonization occurring within systems that are easier to sell to the average Joe who may know or really care about whether or not they're violating another culture.
Images taken by Gelline