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Designers reinvent Basotho blankets as couture

 

 

Thabo Makhetha’s Bale collection.
Thabo Makhetha’s Bale collection.

London

YOU can’t wear a blanket to a corporate meeting, but you can wear a jacket made from a blanket, says fashion designer Thabo Makhetha.

Makhetha is known for her reinvention of the famous Basotho blanket, from which she makes capes, jackets, gilets, and other items quite at home at a conference table. “I have found that people who leave — I don’t want to say rural areas, but places where their culture is practised — for the city, start leaving behind their culture. I think you should be able to wear your culture with pride,” she says.

Makhetha, was ImpACT Awards’ Designer of the Year in 2014, and has just set up shop in Cape Town, moving from Port Elizabeth, where Thabo Makhetha Designs began in 2009. She is not alone. Just more than 1,000km away, in the Lesotho capital Maseru, Teboho Moekoa uses the famous blankets to make handbags and other accessories.

“The philosophy behind our brand,” he says, “is awareness of culture; fashion as a vehicle for that.” The Basotho blanket is not your ordinary winter warmer. Although there are knock-offs on the market, the blankets are exclusively made in SA by Aranda Textile Mills, in partnership with Lesotho’s royal family.

Lesotho’s first monarch, King Moshoeshoe, wore the first one, presented to him in about 1860 by Britain’s Queen Victoria. He liked it so much, he started a fashion that became a tradition.

“Each blanket has a name and a purpose,” Makhetha says. While the Basotho blanket tradition is not as strictly practised as it used to be, she says, there is a blanket for every milestone in a life — birth, marriage, first child, death.

Makhetha’s latest collection is inspired by the Basotho initiation practices for girls. “I’ve had the company for about seven years, so we are still learning,” she says.

“I am still an emerging designer; this is my initiation.”

The two men who head up Aranda Textile Mills, Nick Magni and Tom Kritzinger, have blankets in their blood.

Kritzinger was born in Ficksburg, the tiny Free State town a short drive from Lesotho’s Maputsoe border post. His father worked for the UK-based Fraser Group, which used to make the blankets.

“The first time I visited one of the factories, I was seven. I am 63,” he says. “I just have such a love for the blankets, and the Basotho people and their unique culture. Nowhere in the world is there a blanket culture like this, where every milestone has a blanket.”

“I was born in the wool business,” says Magni, son of Rodolfo Magni, who founded the Aranda in the 1950s. “The Magnis were in the textile business in Italy. The Italian factory was destroyed by Germans retreating from the Allies. They were textile engineers, and they brought the skills with them (to SA); they taught people to weave, to mill, to wash. We are one of the very few vertical textile operations left in the country.”

What Magni means is that Aranda’s Basotho blankets are made from scratch — the company washes the wool it buys, spins and dyes it, and processes it into the finished blanket. It’s a time-consuming process. Aranda buys only South African wool, although there is one acrylic “entry-level” Basotho blanket it makes.

SA’s wool is sought after worldwide for its high quality, and most of it is used in apparel, says Cape Wools CEO Louis de Beer. The country produces 16%-18% of the world’s apparel quality wool. “We are small in total terms, but not small in terms of apparel.”

Aranda makes between 2-million and 3-million of the blankets each year, depending on the health of the South African economy, Magni says. “There are good years and bad years. We are now on an export drive, but the market is viciously competitive. It’s a volumes game. If you don’t have the volumes, you don’t survive.” Volume is something that also occupies Moekoa’s mind. His company, Kemet Designs and Creations, won the 2015 Bacha Entrepreneurship Prize, and has since seen increased production.

He also showed his work at trade show in Cape Town in June.

“It was awesome,” he says. “We have had correspondence with potential clients in SA and overseas. We made a whole lot of connections,” says Moekoa.

Like Maseru-based blanket designer Me Libuseng Titi, Moekoa has been supported by Aranda, which benefits from encouraging the expansion of the use of the blankets.

“We are on an extensive programme to export the blankets,” Kritzinger says, “especially because there is a fashion trend to wear blankets we can take advantage of.”

Titi designed her first Basotho blanket after seeing Lesotho’s prime minister wearing one in the Lesotho Congress for Democracy’s red, black and green, but which had a design unrelated to the political party’s symbols. That blanket design didn’t do so well, she says, but her next one was a success.

Designed to be launched alongside a film about the founding of the Basotho nation, the Moshoeshoe blanket is so popular Titi can’t keep up stock in her Maseru blanket shop.

Meanwhile, Aranda has commissioned the design of a new blanket to commemorate the Allies’ iconic Second World War aeroplane, the Spitfire. “We were contacted by the Spitfire Heritage Trust,” says Kritzinger. “During World War Two, Basotholand (now Lesotho) donated two squadrons of Spitfires (to the Allied forces). They were instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain.”

In commemoration, the Royal Air Force and the UK government are donating a full-scale replica of a Spitfire as a monument in Lesotho. The donation of the squadrons was “a disproportionately generous contribution, involving considerable sacrifice”, says the project’s main sponsor, Gem Diamonds.

“This little-known period in our shared history deserves to be more widely celebrated by the public of both our nations.”

Kritzinger says that like the Spitfire blanket, which will feature symbols of Lesotho and the aeroplane, each Basotho blanket is rich in symbolism. Royalties are paid to designers, and Aranda “puts back” in other ways too, such as through its partnership with Roundabout Water Solutions.

The company makes borehole pumps that are linked to a playground roundabout, so that children pump the water into a tank as they play.

Later this year, the Lesotho Olympic Team will march onto the field in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro wearing Aranda-made Basotho blankets. “It’s a small team,” says Magni, “but we’ll be there.” – BDLiv.

 

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