Luxury labels culturally appropriate the Maasai

Designers from all over continue to culturally appropriate without giving credit where it’s due.

By: Kitiana Adams, Staff Writer

Companies around the world have exploited the uniqueness of Maasai cultural brands to make their products more appealing and help to increase sales but have failed to compensate the people of Kenya and Tanzania.

The most infamous case of cultural appropriation would be Louis Vuitton’s 2012 spring/summer men’s collection which featured hats, shirts, and scarves that were “inspired” by the Maasai Shuka, a traditional African blanket in shades of blue and red. According to Light Years IP, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that works on public interest intellectual property issues internationally, the issue is that these luxury labels aren’t compensating the Maasai people although they’ve helped sell billions of dollars worth of product. There isn’t anything wrong with simply being inspired by a certain culture’s imagery. It’s the lack of credit and compensation for those cultures that tug on the nerves of some.

Founded and supported by Light Years IP, the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative was created to challenge companies referring to or copying the signature Maasai style without a licensing agreement. The Maasai IP Initiative assumes that by working with the community and forcing companies to get licenses from the Maasai, that a reasonable amount of funds can be distributed to the people.Corporations like Burberry, are quick to enforce their trademarks and copyrights to make sure their brands aren’t weakened, so it’s only fair that the people of Maasai should follow suit for their own.

“Nearly 80 percent of the Maasai population in Kenya and Tanzania are living below the poverty line,” MIPI stated on their website.

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

The Maasai may be known for their history of hunting lions to prove their fearless warrior status but it’s their extremely colorful way of dress that has stood out, being one of the greatest images of traditional Africa. Their bead-work has even caught the eye of designers for years that in the last decade, they’ve had to trademark their artistry to protect their cultural legacy. Like the Maasai, Burberry has a signature check and a distinct name that consumers connect with their brand and they defend their name along with their pattern with IP enforcement action.

The Burberry plaid can’t be copied and the name is so famous that it belongs exclusively to the British brand. The Maasai believe that companies borrowing traditional designs as well as their name, should pay for the privilege just as Burberry would demand.

MIPI has calculated how much they believe the Maasai people are owed from as many as 80 companies that they allege are infringing on their brand. According to MIPI, the Maasai should be collecting 10 million in licensing fees every year.

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