By Ricky Browne
Many Jamaican’s were offended recently when international fashion designer Louis Vuitton created a sweater which it said was inspired by the Caribbean country’s flag.
In the process, Louis Vuitton has inadvertently created a business case study in the danger of using a nation’s symbols without first doing your homework.
The sweater featured three equal stripes of the colours green, gold and red – or Ites, green and gold as the three colours are referred to in Jamaica — where the colours can be seen on clothes, flags and in jewellery all over the place.
The sweater, featuring the LV logo, is said to be knitted from very lightweight Japanese yarn, and retails for more than US$1,300.
The luxury brand promoted the product by saying: “This smart pullover channels the collection’s Jamaican Parade theme, with a striped design inspired by the Caribbean island’s national flag. “
The problem is that red is not one of the colours on the Jamaican flag. The three colours are actually black, gold and green.
Red, green and gold are the colours that are linked to Jamaica’s Rastafarian religion, which believes that Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie I is the embodiment of God on Earth.
This belief was spurred by Jamaican national hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s prophesy “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer” shortly before Haile Selassie was crowned.
The colours of the Ethiopian flag are red, green and gold and traditionally carried the Lion of Judah, a version of which is still carried on Rastafarian flags.
But since 1996 the country has added a blue circle to the middle of the tricolour, with a yellow outlined and rayed star . Perhaps this was partially an effort to separate itself from the better known Rasta flag.
Red, green and gold is also the colours of many other African flags, including the Ghanaian flag. Ghana’s flag also features a black star—believed by some to be a reference to Marcus Garvey and his failed attempt to promote the return of black people in the Americas back to Africa on his Black Star Line.
Outside of Africa, the colour combination is also used for the Bolivian flag. The South American country sometimes feels obliged to carry its coat of arms on the flag to better differentiate it from the better-known Ethiopian flag. That was certainly the case in Jamaica some years ago, when the Ambassador tired of Jamaicans continually believing that he was representing Ethiopia. The two countries are about 7500 miles apart, and other than both losing their sea borders to become land-locked countries, they have very little in common.
So the red, gold and green combination is well represented in the world of national flags.
But at gaining independence in 1962, the Jamaican parliament chose the colours black, gold and green for its flag. The red was probably avoided, so as not to link the new nation’s flag so closely to the Rastafarian religion – which at that time was not cool and was considered a threat to the island’s stability – not to mention its middle-class sensibilities.
The end result was a flag that had a diagonal cross in gold, with two green triangles above and below the cross, and two black triangles to the left and right.
The flag was said to symbolise the idea that “problems there are, but the land is green and the sun shineth,” That might be true enough, but decades later that was changed, because some people thought that it was not right that the colour black should represent hardships, when the vast majority of the population is black. So the saying was changed to the more politically correct but less poetic “the sun shineth, the land is green, and the people are strong and creative”.
About 10 years after independence, the People’s National Party, one of the main political parties, chose orange as its party colour – much as the Conservatives colour is blue and Labour is red. The other main party, the Jamaica Labour Party, then chose its colour as green, identifying it more with the Jamaican symbol. Later PNP Prime Minister Portia Simpson chose yellow as her personal colour, linking her more closely with the Jamaican flag.
But by avoiding the red, Jamaica created a truly unique flag, as it is the only country in the world to have a national flag that doesn’t contain the colours red, blue or white.
CAPITAL OF COOL
Jamaica, a small Caribbean island with a population of less than three million people, has a global brand image and is seen as being one of the coolest nationalities on Earth. In a fairly recent poll by CNN Travel, Jamaica was ranked as the third coolest country on Earth, Behind Brazil and (controversially perhaps) Singapore.
This is what CNN had to say about Jamaica at the time:
“There’s more to Jamaicans than reggae, including Rastafarian (the most kick-back religion ever invented), an accent that’s the envy of the English-speaking world and the planet’s most distinctive and recognizable hairstyle. Note to backpackers: dreadlocks only cool on actual Jamaicans. Icon of cool: Usain Bolt. Fastest human ever timed and nine-time Olympic Gold medal winner.
Not so cool: High murder rate and widespread homophobia.”
This image has indeed been boosted by famous Jamaican icons like reggae superstar Bob Marley, and the fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt – both of whom carry themselves in a way that can be identified as cool.
On a global level, Ethiopia, Ghana and Bolivia – though each of them is many times bigger in both size and population – just don’t compete when it comes to that kind of image.
Several other countries also have red, green and gold flags, including: Cameroon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Congo, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and Sao Tome and Principe. Regrettably their level of fame and coolness is far less than Jamaica. The market for items of clothing that try to represent Sao Tome and Principe is far lower than the market for Jamaican influenced fashions.
But none of those eight countries managed to break into the list of top-10 cool countries. And none of them have the kind of international fame that Jamaica has.
So people can get quite touchy about their national flag and symbols.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
The last time something like this happened was in October, 2019 when Kanye West came to give a free gospel concert in Kingston’s Emancipation Park.
As part of his merchandise he started to sell a sweatshirt, cap and T-shirts which featured the Kingston Coat of Arms. All hell broke loose, as people complained he had no right to take any of their symbols without permission for his own monetary gain.
The sweatshirt and other merchandise was quickly withdrawn from Kanye’s site, especially after the Jamaican government requested that he pull it.
But that wasn’t the only time by any means, as a few years ago UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver promoted a product that claimed to be related to Jamaican jerk but was unrecognisable to anyone from Jamaica.
It created an uproar, and Oliver was accused of cultural appropriation for daring to call a microwavable rice dish “punchy jerk rice”. Nobody in Jamaica has ever dared to claim that their rice was jerked, and its quite likely that no one ever will. Pork yes. Chicken yes. Even lobster and lamb can potentially be jerked — and it theoretically could be possible to jerk vegetables maybe. But rice? How dare he?
Louis Vuitton’s most recent example of cultural appropriation was brought to light on Twitter by Pam_Boy, who published a photo of the Jamaican Stripe Pullover alongside the actual Jamaican flag.
He tweeted: “Louis Vuitton’s Jamaican stripe pullover & Jamaica’s actual flag. I cannot stress enough how important it is to implement diversity as a value and not a symbol within fashion companies.”
The tweet included a photo of the offensive pullover alongside a Jamaican flag. It received about 3,000 likes, was retweeted about 900 times and got 69 comments, with many people objecting on social media about the latest example of foreigners trying to steal Jamaica’s national identity.
It got worse, as some people also got upset that the model was of Asian descent rather than black — perhaps not appreciating Jamaica’s long-held national motto: “Out of many, one people.”
By Thursday, the page on the Louis Vuitton site had been removed. “Page not found” read the statement on what should have been the page for the Jamaican-stripe pullover. “We apologize, we cannot find the page you are looking for. Please contact our Client Services or navigate to another page. Thank you.”
As a result, Jamaica is now missing out on having its brand advertised by Louis Vuitton, and linked with one of the world’s top premier luxury lifestyle brands.
On the other hand, it has received some publicity from this story. And perhaps the next time a fashion house wants to use the cool Jamaican image, it will be a little more careful in how they describe it.
Maybe this is the price you have to pay when you are viewed as one of the coolest countries on Earth. People are going to culturally appropriate your symbols all over the place. But on the plus side, by so doing, it helps to build the Jamaica brand, when admirers look for authenticity.
There are 137 that have populations larger than Jamaica. And there are 163 countries that are larger by area. But the Jamaica brand is way more powerful than places that are much larger than it — that includes countries with red, green and gold flags like Bolivia, or Cameroon. But it also includes countries that are big in the news now, like Myanmar for example.
And the fact is, that thanks to Rastafarianism and reggae music, red, green and gold are actually closely associated with Jamaica — so it should only be expected that international brands will pick up on that when they want to project a Jamaican image.
In Jamaica, you are more likely to see someone wearing red, green and gold than black, gold and green — even if the first three are not the national colours.
But maybe international companies need to take a little more care when it comes to describing Jamaican symbols, so as avoid ridicule or negative comments. ‘Jamaican-inspired’ should not cause offence, but saying that the design was inspired by the flag itself, was not a smart move.
Unless of course Louis Vuitton believes that the only bad publicity is no publicity. In which case, the move was an act of genius.