Note: IP refers to intellectual property.
In 2008 Kikoy UK Ltd attempts to trademark the Kikoi (which would give the company sole commercial rights to the Kikoi in Europe). They fail, thanks to efforts of Kenya Industrial Property Institute. Articles are run on the IP drama, Kikoy UK Ltd continues to profit from the Kikoi. No preventive measures are made to make sure Kenyan culture is no longer at risk.
The S/S2012 Louis Vuitton runway show debuts a ‘hot new trend’, a checked textile pattern featuring red, blue, black and purple hues known as the Maasai Shuka. Louis Vuitton takes ‘homage’ to a new colonial-esque level and patents the Maasai Shuka.
Helen Jennings, editor at Arise says “I still encourage any trend that keeps accents of Africa in the mainstream lexicon of fashion” some Kenyans write think pieces other Kenyans are flattered. The Kenyan government makes no comment.
2011 Vivienne Westwood decides Kenya is in for the ethical fashion initiative. The purchase and resale figures are unknown but 5000 people are involved and 90% of them are disenfranchised women. The world applauds Westwood for her efforts to help the impoverished women of Nairobi, Kenyans are once again flattered. No mention of the way forward, should Kenya go out of style or how much of the profit remains in Kenya.
Fast forward to today and western acceptance has trickled down and everyone seems to be embracing African culture. Beads, colorful textiles, headdresses and accessories swarm our timelines (well mine at least) and all fall under the vague fashion genre,‘African’. No one seems to have knowledge on the garments they adorn. There is obvious merit to this, suddenly Africa and being African is beautiful once more. But there is also unspoken tragedy (unspoken because it has not occurred to us yet or because we feel it is the price to pay for Africa’s re-beautification, I don’t know) because, the headlines were not:
Maasai designer reinvents the Shuka and makes a splash at fashion week.
Kenyan government rushes to protect the Maasai people’s interest in the commercialization of the Shuka.
Social business woman works with women to create an ethical fashion line.
Or even better:
Kenyan company struggles to win patent for the Kikoi to secure export market, efforts are thwarted by government seeking to protect the livelihood of thousands on Kenyans.
We can (and should) explore why this is not our reality and express our anger for the issues around IPs and cultural appropriation.
However, we should not wallow in blame and anger. We should look to a way forward.
Perhaps a great first step would be learning self-love. Love for our culture and ALL of our history. Love that inspires us to rediscover what our precolonial ascendants thought as fashionable, and why they wore those fashionable things.
I believe that it is from this love that we will gain enough strength to unlearn the negative self-perception forced on us and rebuild our lost culture in a way that applies to today’s world but would also make our ancestors proud. Do not stop at wearing a pretty ‘traditional’ garment; learn its significance show your respect for that garment by referring to it with the name your ancestors gave it.
We should not be waiting for foreign entities to tell us our culture is beautiful, it is. We should not be waiting to fight off companies attempting to monopolize our culture. Instead the opportunity should not exist.
Stay fashionable Xoxo…