Louis Vuitton’s Latest Release Is a Slap in the Face to Jamaica and Africa

The luxury fashion house tried to appropriate Caribbean culture and instead disrespected Black history

Any clothing item made of 49% polyester with a $1,340 price tag is a commerce crime. That’s the ask for Louis Vuitton’s newly released Jamaican Stripe Pullover LV Intarsia. Yet, sadly, marking up the price of inexpensive materials to match one month’s rent in many major cities isn’t the fashion brand’s biggest, most recent transgression.

The shirt’s design consists of three horizontal stripes: green on top, yellow in the middle, and red down bottom. This colorway, according to the item description, was inspired by Jamaica’s national flag. The problem is that the Jamaican flag is not green, yellow, and red; it’s green, yellow, and black. It’s not striped, either. If Louis Vuitton was so wedded to this specific palette and design, the homage’s rightful home would’ve been Ethiopia; if it weren’t for the East African country’s national emblem, the pricey pullover would be a replica of its flag.

Long story short? Louis Vuitton fucked up by not doing its due diligence. Despite the flowery messaging, honoring the culture and people of Jamaica was apparently less of a priority than profiting from their aesthetic.

LV intended for the top to speak to the strong connection between the popular island and Ethiopia. That connection is the religion of Rastafari (or Rastafarianism). Although it originated in Jamaica nearly a century ago, the faith is represented by an older version of the Ethiopian flag, which features the same three stripes, but with an image of the Lion of Judah at its center. The Rastafarian God is Jah. The Jesus to Rastas’ Christianity is Ras Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor who reigned from 1930 until his murder in 1974. In Ethiopia, Ras is a royal title — it translates to “head” or “prince.” Selassie is renowned as the most transformative leader in Ethiopian history. He abolished slavery in his country and authored its first constitution, ushering his monarchy into modernity. A Haile Selassie LV shirt would’ve wrought plenty fire emojis.

When Louis Vuitton first released the sweatshirt last month, the item description read: “With a striped design inspired by the Caribbean island’s national flag.” By February 2, the bio had been amended to “inspired by the Caribbean island’s cultural heritage.” Except the nearly $1,400 shirt was sold out and the crime of inaccurate appropriation already committed. It’s silly since Louis Vuitton simply could’ve labeled the shirt “Rasta Stripe Pullover.” But that would’ve placed colonization on the runway. Instead of sensual Beres Hammond ballads and rum punch-soaked beach parties, LV’s pretty story would’ve had to include poor knotty-headed Black people who embraced Marcus Garvey’s ideologies and the hope of escaping their land’s economic and political oppression for Africa (a collective sentiment Bob Marley documented on the powerful “Exodus”) Louie had no interest in honoring the richest part of Jamaican culture: its spirituality. The high-fashion brand just wanted to sell the island’s vibes. Pyer Moss it is not. Yet, even in Louie’s superficiality, they still got it wrong.

What the French fashion house needed was a person of color who had a finger on the pulse of both the American immigrant experience and pop culture. Oh, wait. That would be Virgil Abloh.

How does this happen? History would lead one to believe that there wasn’t anyone who worked on this product internally with ties to or knowledge of Jamaican and African history; no one who the brand claimed to salute had a seat at Louis Vuitton’s table. What the French fashion house needed was a person of color who had a finger on the pulse of both the American immigrant experience and pop culture. Oh, wait. That would be Virgil Abloh, the creative director for LV’s menswear. Not only is Abloh exalted within the intersections of fashion and hip-hop thanks to his affiliation with Kanye West, but he is also the son of Ghanaian parents. Green, yellow, and red also happen to be the colors of the Ghanaian flag.

This may have been a crime committed solely by Louie’s e-commerce division. Yet, anyone familiar with Abloh wouldn’t be surprised if he indeed knew about the “Jamaican” sweater. This is someone whose own staff — he’s the creator of the luxury streetwear line Off-White — has been criticized for its lack of diversity. He’s also no stranger to tone-deafness; despite all the chaos surrounding the release of the 2019 documentary Leaving Netherland, which for the umpteenth time alleged that Michael Jackson was a child sex abuser, Abloh saw it fitting to release a line honoring MJ in the same year. His superiors were not pleased.

Whether Kanye’s buddy was aware of the pullover and ignorant to its inaccuracy or was simply excluded from the item’s production, his position appears to be a token. That would make him, despite his lineage and deepened pigment, essentially a fashion house nigga. The house nigga’s job is not to correct wrong, but facilitate it—be a mascot for the wrongdoers, so that the weakest of the wronged witness and aspire.

We would assume that after the vile apparel produced over the past few years, fashion brands would at least make an effort to avoid pumping any more racism out of their factories. As offensive as Kendall Jenner’s attempt at using activism to sell Pepsi was, the ridiculousness ultimately neutered its efficacy. But consumer retail and fashion houses have been egregiously offensive. They’ve literally produced tangible propaganda for White supremacy.

At the top of 2018, H&M released an ad featuring a very Black boy wearing a hoodie that read “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle.” Not cool at all. Did H&M apologize? Of course. Did they stop selling the item? Only in the United States. Then there was the Gucci turtleneck that resembled blackface, and Burberry making a hoodie with a noose for drawstrings. Let me repeat that: Drawstrings designed as a noose.

Minorities can criticize European fashion houses that are desensitized to historical crimes against humanity, clueless marketing departments, or willing Black tokens all they desire. The power to stop inaccurate history lessons and cultural disregard still lives within the almighty dollar. Not only do we have to stop paying for disrespect, but we must also cease the funding of bad narratives. In the ’70s, America turned cannabis smokers into punchlines (see Cheech & Chong). In American pop culture, the Rasta exemplifies little strength and no regality. These spiritual lovers are perceived as laggards and linked more to Jamaica and ganja than the honorable Haile Selassie or Marcus Garvey. Snoop Lion did not help.

If you think this indictment is an overreaction, simply look at the rising popularity of the Caribbean dish “Rasta Pasta.” While admittedly delectable, its main attraction is a creamy sauce. It’s often served with any animal of choice, from shrimp to ox. The Rastafarian’s diet is globally known as “ital,” which stems from the word “vital” and is often vegetarian or pescatarian and void of any additives or byproducts. So how are white flour noodles drenched in processed cream, cheese, and animal shreds reflective of a person who chooses to eat from the earth? They feed us inaccurate lifestyle and merch and we just gobble it up. Jah know.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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