Fashion de­sign­ers make blan­ket state­ment

Lesotho Times - - Weekender - Ryan Lenora Brown — Christian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor

THE Amer­i­cans had their Ralph Lau­ren blaz­ers, Team Canada was a for­est of maple leaves, and the Hun­gar­i­ans looked like red and white bar codes. But even among the many colour­ful of­fer­ings of the Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony last month, one team’s uni­forms had a par­tic­u­larly unique flour­ish.

Team Le­sotho had come to the world’s great­est sport­ing event dressed in … blan­kets. And as the eight mem­bers of its Olympic squad looped Rio’s Mara­canã sta­dium, they wore them draped over their track suits like over­sized blue and gray capes.

But if the look was dis­tinc­tive in Brazil, for those fa­mil­iar with Le­sotho it wasn’t sur­pris­ing at all.

Here, blan­kets ex­ist not just to be spread over beds or slung across couches, but to be worn – out to herd sheep (of which Le­sotho has many) or on your wed­ding day, to cel­e­brate in­de­pen­dence day or just fend off a brac­ing win­ter snow in the high­lands.

“In Le­sotho, the blan­ket busi­ness is a very much a fashion busi­ness,” says Tom Kritzinger, head of sales and mar­ket­ing for Aranda Tex­tile Mills out­side of Johannesburg, which to­day owns the ex­clu­sive right to pro­duce Ba­sotho blan­kets – so called for the name of the peo­ple who in­habit Le­sotho.

But if blan­kets have long been the most pop­u­lar item of cloth­ing in Le­sotho, in re­cent years they have also be­come the tiny coun­try’s most vis­i­ble cul­tural ex­port, ap­pear­ing not only in the Olympics but also in the fashion shows of Louis Vuit­ton and on the shelves of Amer­i­can cloth­ing chain An­thro­polo­gie, where they were mar­keted for their “tra­di­tional tribal” pat­terns.

De­sign­ers from both in and out­side the re­gion have trans­formed the blan­kets – with their bright colour schemes and recog­nis­able pat­terns – into bomber jack­ets, pon­chos, and throw pil­lows.

“We’re re­claim­ing some­thing very tra­di­tional and us­ing it to make a state­ment,” says Bokang Ramore­boli ( pic­tured), a New York-based designer from Le­sotho, whose la­bel, All Flo Cou­ture, puts out jack­ets and pon­chos stitched from the blan­kets. It’s a way, she says, to “sell” Le­sotho beyond the typ­i­cal nar­ra­tive of a poor African coun­try in need of char­ity.

“There’s some­thing to me that’s unat­trac­tive about sad­ness, and I wanted to give peo­ple a way to stop think­ing only about the poverty here and start con­sid­er­ing our rich his­to­ries, cul­tures, and tra­di­tions in­stead,” she says.

The story the coun­try’s blan­kets tell about its his­tory, how­ever, is a gnarled one.

Con­sider this, for in­stance: Le­sotho’s blan­kets, the coun­try’s great cul­tural icon, were in­vented by for­eign­ers, and they have never ac­tu­ally been made in Le­sotho.

A Bri­tish in­va­sion

Blan­kets were in­tro­duced to the coun­try in the mid-19th cen­tury by Bri­tish traders eye­ing a new mar­ket for their wares among lo­cal peo­ple, who fre­quently wrapped them­selves in an­i­mal skins.

Sales took off, and soon Bri­tish blan­ket mak­ers were de­sign­ing specif­i­cally for lo­cal tastes, cre­at­ing pat­terns that were an eclec­tic mix of the cul­tur­ally spe­cific – a blan­ket fea­tur­ing im­ages of corn, a Ba­sotho sym­bol of fer­til­ity and wealth – and the global – one pop­u­lar style de­vel­oped in the mid-20th cen­tury called “Badges of the Brave” fea­tures em­blems of the var­i­ous global reg­i­ments that fought on the side of the Bri­tish in World War II .

For most of the blan­kets’ his­tory, they were made in Eng­land, and to­day they are spun, wo­ven, and sewn at Aranda’s ram­bling fac­tory com­plex in an in­dus­trial sub­urb of Johannesburg. Marco Magni, whose Ital­ian im­mi­grant grand­fa­ther started the com­pany just af­ter World War II, says he is fre­quently asked why he doesn’t move the op­er­a­tion to Le­sotho. The coun­try, af­ter all, has a thriv­ing tex­tile in­dus­try and tens of thou­sands of peo­ple ac­tively look­ing for work.

But it’s not that sim­ple, he says. Blan­ket mak­ing is an op­er­a­tion of scale, and Ba­sotho blan­kets ac­count for only a sliver – less than 10 per­cent – of the 1.8 mil­lion blan­kets his com­pany pro­duces an­nu­ally.

“It is a hard one, we do get quite a bit of pres­sure,” he says. “But it just not vi­able to open a blan­ket fac­tory just to pro­duce those.”

Colo­nial im­agery

In­stead, he says, the com­pany works with lo­cal de­sign­ers to bring out new styles of blan­ket ev­ery few years. And de­spite the glar­ingly colo­nial im­agery of some of the blan­kets – the Bri­tish crown is a pop­u­lar mo­tif, for ex­am­ple – over the past cen­tury they’ve all de­vel­oped dis­tinc­tive lo­cal mean­ings. That blan­ket cov­ered in com­mon­wealth mil­i­tary em­blems, for in­stance, fea­tures one from New Zealand with the ini­tials NZ em­bla­zoned across it. In Le­sotho to­day, how­ever, the let­ters are largely taken to stand for Nazareth – as in, the home town of Je­sus. “Per­cep­tion is re­al­ity,” Kritzinger says. Back in Maseru, Se­bolelo Rathebe staffs the reg­is­ter at The Blan­ket Par­lour, a mall bou­tique where Aranda’s blan­kets are stacked floor to ceil­ing in a woolen rain­bow. There are a wide va­ri­ety of styles on dis­play, from one fea­tur­ing the geo­met­ric spi­ral of the kharetsa, an aloe found in Le­sotho’s high­lands, to a pat­tern de­signed by her boss, Me Libuseng Titi, which fea­tures a por­trait of King Moshoeshoe I. The 19th-cen­tury king es­tab­lished the Ba­sotho na­tion and led them in fight­ing off in­cur­sions from Dutch and Zulu in­vaders.

Rathebe says that one of the most chal­leng­ing parts of sell­ing the blan­kets is help­ing peo­ple find a way to pay for them. Like De Beers drum­ming up de­mand for en­gage­ment rings with its di­a­monds in mid-20th cen­tury Amer­ica, blan­ket mak­ers have suc­ceeded in mak­ing Ba­sotho blan­kets a musthave item for var­i­ous stages of life here. But as with di­a­monds in the West, the price tag of a blan­ket – about $50 – is a hefty one in a coun­try where most peo­ple work as sub­sis­tence farm­ers.

Built to last

Once a blan­ket is pur­chased, how­ever, it’s gen­er­ally ex­pected to last a life­time, or close to it.

Ramore­boli, the designer, says she got the idea to turn the blan­kets into jack­ets when, in 2013, she opened a pack­age from her grand­mother to find one of her old Ba­sotho blan­kets inside – decades old and still in top shape. “To wear it just like that seemed old­fash­ioned, but I wanted to do some­thing with it,” she says.

When she put on the jacket for the first time, the reaction was over­whelm­ing, she says. Peo­ple wanted them – and per­haps even more im­por­tantly, they wanted to know where they came from.

Three years later, Ramore­boli has hired a lo­cal seam­stress to sew her de­signs for her in Maseru so that she can ex­pand her op­er­a­tion. But there’s an­other im­por­tant rea­son to have the jack­ets sewn there, she says.

“I want them to say ‘Made in Le­sotho’ on the tag,” she says. “You can’t even say that with the blan­kets them­selves, and I want us to claim that ti­tle back.”

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