Cultural appropriation or appreciation? Louis Vuitton turns Basotho blankets into expensive fashion items

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JOHANNESBURG, 11 July 2017 - For the Basotho, this blanket signifies a sacred ritual. For global fashion house, Louis Vuitton, it is the latest money spinner and it comes with a hefty price tag of R33,000.

JOHANNESBURG - Fashion powerhouse, Louis Vuitton, met with criticism from South Africans, after turning a culturally significant Basotho blanket, into the latest fashion trend for men.

It comes with a hefty price tag of R33,000.

But that has not been a deterrent - the garment sold out in South Africa, within days.

Now, local designers are questioning whether Louis Vuitton should be profiting from the Basotho culture and whether this is cultural appropriation or appreciation.

For the Basotho, the blanket signifies a sacred ritual and normally does not go for more the R1,000.

But for Vuitton, it is the latest money spinner.

Well-known local designer, Maria McCloy, said it is outright theft, as the Basotho people were not involved in the process.

“African artists are also artists and designers. We also have names. It is not just something blank that everyone has the right to come and take," she said.

"So I think we are angry because we feel exploited. It’s not just that they are inspired by us. That’s a compliment, but you need to take it a bit further and involve us otherwise its theft.”

In Cape Town, Thabo Maketha designs Basotho-inspired garments for women.

She said it is not just the global brands that need to rethink the way they profit from African prints because there is demand for these locally-inspired, international products.

“For centuries now the West has been taking from Africa. There are two sides to this. The positive aspect is yes, Europe designer’s houses are looking at Africa and taking from our cultures. It shows the world is interested in what Africa has to offer," he said.

"The downside is, of course, they are making a profit out of it. But at the same time, they sold out at the Johannesburg and Cape Town stores. As much as people are quite upset about what has happened, there are still people who are consuming those goods.”

Maketha also believes the luxury brand should have included locals. “There are more respectful ways of doing it. For example, collaborating with local people who actually produced those products.”

Designers often use culture as a muse to create new trends, but sharing the profits is rarely part of the business model.

And, there is a concern around the commodification of African garments and prints, that hold deep meaning to local communities.