Anger over African designs

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Matthew Williamson, the clothing designer to the stars, has become embroilled in an unfashionable row over some of his new dress designs.

He has included two outfits based on traditional Ethiopian dresses in his latest collection prompting the government of the African country to investigate how it can protect its national costume from his attentions.

The dresses are replicas of those that are a staple in most Ethiopian women's wardrobes, sparking outrage in the country's online community. In a Facebook group dedicated to the issue almost a thousand members debate the morality of borrowing a country's national costume, especially when that country is one of the poorest in the world.

Traditional Ethiopian tailors shemanne in Amharic earn up to 200 Ethiopian Birr a month, the equivalent of 10, while the dress made by the Manchester-born designer priced at 895 would cost 30 if created by one of them.

Oxfam, which backed Ethiopia in its battle to trademark its coffee beans in a recently resolved legal tussle with Starbucks, is investigating the matter along with the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Addis Ababa, having been alerted by the Ethiopian Embassy in London.

A spokeswoman for Matthew Williamson's company said in a statement: "The design team derived inspiration from various African countries and tribal groups.

"In presenting his spring/ summer 2008 collection Matthew Williamson strived to gain recognition and admiration for not only the traditional dress of the Ethiopian people, but also other African communities whose beautiful traditional techniques are also evident in the show."

She added that the designer had no desire to offend "such communities".

However, Abdurazak Omer of the Intellectual Property Office in Addis Ababa said: "We are very unhappy with the actions of Mr Williamson.

"These are the dresses of our mothers and grandmothers. They symbolise our identity, faith and national pride. Nobody has the right to claim these designs as their own."

While his officers would like to take action they are financially limited in what they can undertake, he said, adding that that this incident is just one of many such cases.

Many of those who joined the Facebook group suggest that Williamson could perhaps lessen his "offence" by donating a percentage of his profits to one of the charities that supports Ethiopian weavers and tailors.

Or maybe to use more African models, such as the Ethiopian Liya Kebede who has previously appeared in catwalk shows for Mr Williamson.