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Louis Vuitton and African Textiles: The Case of Kente
Reactions to Louis Vuitton’s menswear fashion show in January 2021, held in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, have been enthusiastic, however, the brand’s decision to use printed Kente cloth in this autumn-winter 2021 show has given rise to disquiet in Africa. These were boosted when the same printed and monogrammed Kente-looking textile was featured on a dress worn by poet Amanda Gorman for the cover of Vogue Magazine issue from May 2021.
With this recent appropriation of Kente*, what we should remember is how an opportunity was missed by French brand Louis Vuitton* to 'pay tribute' to Ghana’s rich culture which embraces such love for textiles and clothing. By refusing to engage with local artisans in villages, by choosing to produce in the West and adding a Western logo on a sacred cloth, Louis Vuitton just opened the gate to more appropriations and theft of African artisans' works. The “savoir-faire” (know-how) - term used constantly in the online communication of the brand to depict the quality of the work is applicable to Western ateliers while local weavers in Africa are slowly disappearing. African weavers suffer from the competition with digitally printed Kente-looking textiles imported from Europe and China as explained in Aiwan Obinyan's documentary Wax Print (2018) due to the lack of protection under international laws to protect the ownership of the craft. A recent study by Michelle Okyere, legal associate at Bentsi-Enchill & Ankomah in Ghana and researcher at Nottingham Law School in the U.K, shows how Kente cloth is threatened: Kente imitations have reduced the profit being obtained by the local Kente producers. We have seen a decline of the annual contribution of Kente in the textile industry to Ghana's GDP from USD 179,50 million in 1994 to USD 53.5 million in 2011. Michelle Okyere and Associate Prof. Dr. Janice Denoncourt are working on the introduction of the concept of Geographical Indicators (GI) for non-food items at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) based in Geneva, and precisely on the protection of Ghanaian Kente. Prof. Edward Kwakwa has worked on this topic for more than twenty years to find legal solutions to protect indigenous crafts.
Louis Vuitton’s first trademarked monogram was created in 1888 to protect designs from counterfeits, but also to attract buyers to purchase an exclusive print that would represent “luxury” protected by French law. It was Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) who established in the 1860s the use of the “clothing label” to commercialise his designs to the elite, restricting the making of his clothes to his atelier only as opposed to the tailors and seamstresses of the day. Louis Vuitton then followed this trend launching the monogram pattern to protect its ownership of the designs. Still today, Louis Vuitton regularly files lawsuits against trademark infringement: the Damier, the Monogram prints and its variations are at the heart of the brand’s identity.
Today, Louis Vuitton is commodifying the image of an African cloth protected by local rules, erasing its ownership and its artisans and putting its trademark on a textile already seen as luxurious and high regarded in Ghana. Dispossessing artisans from their own craft in villages is the path to dehumanise and exploit African craft makers, by not involving them in the industrial process, already denounced by Frantz Fanon in 1963 where rural peasants are "The Wretched of the Earth."
This is not the first time Louis Vuitton has erased Africans and other non-Western weavers: with the shuka shawls from the Maasai culture (S/S 2012), with the Basotho blankets (S/S 2017). More recently, from other territories: the colorful Otomi textiles from the Hidalgo region in Mexico, for which Louis Vuitton was called out by the Mexican government and requested to “work together with the community and its artists.” (July 5th 2019). Another example is the repeated use of the term Ikat by Louis Vuitton, a singular weaving technique from Indonesia, which has been as well digitally printed by the brand's ateliers in Europe, stealing hours of laborious and skillful work from Ikat master weavers.
The appropriation of cultural heritages by corporations is one of the expressions of racial capitalism, a term studied by political theorist Cedric J. Robinson. "A process of deriving social and economical value from the racial identity of another person" as written by Nancy Leong (2013). Leong writes in her latest book entitled Identity Capitalists: The powerful Insiders Who Exploit Diveristy To Maintain Inequality, "Beyond the costs to individuals, commodification also harms society as a whole. It replaces productive discourse (...) commodifying identity impoverishes our thought and discourse surrounding identity. It infects the way we think about and talk to one another. Commodifying identity causes us to think of it as just another "thing" - like bread, clothing or furniture- that we can take, use consume, exploit, enjoy, ignore, disparage, or discard as we wish. The attitude is fundamentally at odds with an attitude of respect for identity, or at the very least an attitude of open conversation about it. The desire for particular identity, commodities doesn't reflect worthy feelings about that identity, such as a desire for respect or inclusion. It simply reflects the desire to signal the status and gain the social capital associated with that particular identity commodity. (2021)
It is indeed insensitive towards non-Western communities by reminding traumas: In 2013, a version of the Ghana Must Go bag was used by Louis Vuitton, monogrammed and produced in Europe. This bag has a tragic history in the Ghanaian community for being the bag that some Ghanaians carried to escape Nigeria in 1983, when the local government expelled and forced them to pack their goods and return to Ghana in only 14 days. More than 1 million people were displaced, giving the bag a historical dimension that Louis Vuitton’s design team did not acknowledge while designing the goods.
Again, by commodifying Kente, the French label offended Ghanaians and the Ghanaian diaspora. The items are on their way to being mass-produced and sold in “luxury” stores for a very high price or, most probably, in very expensive limited editions. Consequently, we can already predict that fast-fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, Top Shop, Primark will start their own printed Kente-looking logomania prints in stores following the trend.
We should all be concerned to call for accountability a major label with much means, which should be a pioneer in studying and reflecting on decoloniality in fashion to prepare and inspire a real discourse on sustainability.
*About Kente: Kente cloth is a sacred woven textile that is part of Ghanaian culture (also in Togo, Nigeria & Ivory Coast). It is the cloth of Royal families from the Kingdoms of Ashanti, Ewe and Akan. This textile is one of the symbols of the Ghanaian culture, ruled by local codes that forbid anyone to add a logo on this traditionally woven cloth or use a design without asking local authorities. Each woven colour and shape have specific symbols. If Ghanaian designers want to use Kente, they must agree to not transgress and offend local heritage through engaging with local communities and working with respected artisans. Such normal behaviour is a mark of elegance and respect but is also a legal obligation: “Per section 44 of the Copyright Act, 2005 (Act 690) of Ghana a person who sells, offers or proposes for sale or distribution a work of folklore without permission from the National Folklore Board commits an offense and is liable on summary conviction to a fine … and/or imprisonment for a maximum of three (3) years, or both.”
*About Louis Vuitton: Louis Vuitton is a French label founded in 1854 and now owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH. The brand started its business with trunks and traveling luggage for the European elite and aristocracy during Napoleon III’s reign, as well as tailor-made ingenious and convertible items for explorers and settlers. The most famous and loyal client was Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905) who settled the French colony of Brazzaville in former French Congo. The “Brazza wallet” is still the name of one of Louis Vuitton’s best sellers today. In 1888, Louis Vuitton created the monogram Damier, a printed motif with squared and in 1896, Geroges Vuitton, his son, created the monogram with the letters “LV” taking the brand into a new era. The label is now creating collections of bags, scarves, clothes, accessories, shoes, furniture and much more.
National Folklore Board (Ghana)
Wax Print: 1Fabric, 4 Continents, 200 years History (Documentary, 2018)
On Basotho Blanket (2017)
Mexico calls out Louis Vuitton (2019)
Louis Vuitton “Ikat” items
Protecting Ghana’s intellectual property rights in kente textiles: the case for Geographical Indications by Michelle Okyere, Janice Denoncourt, Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice, Volume 16, Issue 4-5, April-May 2021, Pages 415–426.
What is Racial Capitalism - Robin D. G. Kelley
Racial Capitalism, Article by Nancy Leong
Identity Capitalists: The Powerful Insiders Who Exploit Diversity to Maintain Inequality by Nancy Leong (2021)