Maasai people of East Africa fighting against cultural appropriation by luxury fashion labels

Their name and image is estimated to be worth billions of dollars 

Many of the Maasai live below the poverty line, but luxury brands continue to exploit their arts and design heritage
Many of the Maasai live below the poverty line, but luxury brands continue to exploit their arts and design heritage

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania embody one of the most powerful images of tribal Africa – but it’s a guise that’s becoming increasingly imitated.

Companies around the world have, for some time now, continued to exploit the Maasai’s iconic cultural brand in a bid to infuse a patina of exoticism to their products and increase sales.

The most familiar, perhaps, harks back to Louis Vuitton’s 2012 spring/summer men’s collection which included hats, shirts and scarves inspired by the Maasai Shuka – a traditional African blanket cast in colourful shades of red and blue.

The key issue here is that the Maasai people aren’t compensated for anything sold under these luxury brands' names despite having helped them sell billions of dollars worth of goods worldwide, according to Light Years IP, a Washington DC nonprofit that works on public interest intellectual property issues internationally.

As a result, another group known as the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI) has been created to challenge companies referring to or copying the signature Maasai style without a licensing agreement.

Louis Vuitton’s menswear SS12 show featured knits very similar to the Maasai Shuka 

It hopes that by working with the community and forcing companies to obtain licences from the Maasai that reasonable funds can then be distributed to the people.

“Nearly 80 per cent of the Maasai population in Kenya and Tanzania are living below the poverty line,” the website explains.

“Yet their distinctive and iconic cultural brand and intellectual property concepts have been used commercially around the globe.”

Just as Burberry has the right to copyright and trademark its signature check, so too the Maasai should be able to protect its traditional designs.

But, for some reason, while the rest of the fashion industry progresses, it continues to struggle to maintain an ethical business model.

By working with the Maasai through community boards and gatherings, the MIPI hopes to place control of the cultural brand back in the hands of its people and accrue the compensation it is deserved.

In fact, they’ve gone as far as to quantify exactly how much the Maasai are owed. It’s calculated that around 80 companies are presently infringing and as a result, the Maasai people should be collecting $10m in licensing fees every year.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in