The cover of the May 2021 issue of Vogue featured the National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman draped in a kente wrapper from Virgil Abloh’s Fall/Winter 2021–2022 collection for Louis Vuitton Men’s. In that show, Abloh, who was first known as a designer of the sportswear brand Off-White, styled two looks with kente cloth. He paired one with a hoodie and denim and the other with a white Western suit, creating a hybrid of African and African American sartorial traditions. Abloh printed “LV” unto his kente cloth, which for some raised questions of cultural appropriation and ownership. Possibly anticipating these critiques, Abloh wrote, “Provenance is reality, while ownership is myth: manmade inventions now ripe for re-invention,” in the show notes for the collection.
Kente cloth is associated with the Asante ethnic group in present-day Ghana. Though the fabric was historically worn by royalty, it had become widely accessible by the late nineteenth century. Kente cloth is traditionally patterns and most often brightly colored with reds, yellows, greens, and blacks. Each color and motif are imbued with meaning. For example, the kente wrapper worn by pan-Africanist Ghanaian politician Kwame Nkrumah on February 12, 1951, when he was released from prison, used a pattern called mmeeda, which translates to “something unheard of, unprecedented, extraordinary.” Nkrumah had been jailed for his opposition to the British government, which had made Ghana its colony in 1908. On the day he was freed, he wore this design to emphasize that this historic event was “something that had not happened before.”
After Nkrumah was elected president of the newly independent Ghana in 1957, the country became a beacon of pan-Africanist ideals and a symbol for black liberation in the United States. It welcomed Diasporic African Americans like W. E. B. Du Bois, Julian Bond, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou, all of whom adopted kente cloth during their time there. Since its wider adoption in the 1960s, kente has maintained special significance for Diasporic blacks. As a signifier of pan-Africanist identity and politics, it has had an important influence on sportswear globally.
Since Nkrumah’s election, there have been innumerable instances in which the wearing of kente cloth conveyed strong political meaning. In 1957, a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Dover, Delaware, refused to seat Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, the finance minister of the newly formed nation of Ghana. After reporters learned of the incident, President Dwight Eisenhower apologized to Gbedemah and invited him to breakfast at the White House. In a photo from that breakfast, we see Gbedemah decked out in full kente regalia.
In a photo taken on February 23, 1963—his 95th birthday, and the year of his death—we see Du Bois in an academic gown draped with a kente cloth stole during a ceremony in which he received an honorary degree from the University of Ghana. The stole thus served as a visual cue of black pride and pan-Africanist politics. To this day, draping a kente cloth stole over a graduation gown is a tradition practiced by many African American college graduates.
The strategic uses of kente cloth ran the gamut from the world of politics to athletics. At the 1964 Olympics, the Ghanaian team arrived at the opening ceremony decked out in kente cloth. Though these elaborately draped wrappers were not conducive to athletic activity, the team chose to show pride in their unique cultural heritage and the Afro-centric politics that were central to their national identity. During his visit to Ghana the same year, Muhammad Ali also wore a kente cloth. A convert to Islam and a supporter of radical black nationalism from a young age, Ali donned the Ghanaian national costume as a show of solidarity with the nascent nation. In this way, kente cloth has played an important role in the intersection of sportwear and radical black politics.
Abloh, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ghana, tapped into this history to design his looks for Louis Vuitton. In that show, as well as in his sportswear collections for Off-White, he tapped into his own hybrid identity, reinterpreting kente cloth to explore notions of cultural purity. Like Dutch wax prints, kente has a complicated history that is not purely “African.” To create kente cloths, African artisans in present-day Ghana unraveled imported taffeta, then combined the threads with local cotton. Thus, in their choice of kente cloth, Abloh and Gorman (and Gorman’s Liberian American stylist, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson) are not only signaling pride in Gorman’s blackness and African ancestry; they are also speaking to the complicated relationship that black people, as consumers and producers of fashion items, have with the fashion industry and histories of textile production.
Nike has released Black History Month collections since 2005. Many of these limited-release sneakers include kente (and Dutch wax print) details. Nike’s success is built on urban black and brown communities who aspired to upward mobility through “hoop dreams.” In the past, the company has been accused of profiting from black dollars without giving back to the black community. Its Black History Month collections—and other efforts, like Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the NFL—mark an attempt by the company to address accusations of exploitation of black communities, using kente cloth as a signifier of its black-aligned politics and commitment to racial justice.
Though kente cloth has long been associated with regality, it has also had an important influence on the global sportswear movement, starting with the 1964 Olympics and Muhammad Ali’s visit to Ghana and now utilized by the likes of Virgil Abloh and Nike. From the pomp of graduation exercises to the athletic events, kente holds not only political, but ceremonial significance. Used on sneakers and incorporated into hoodies, t-shirts, and other casualwear among black people both on the African continent and in the Diaspora, kente has become a sign not only of regal Africanity, but of black power. Kente cloth is a textile through which one can track the peregrinations of black radical politics.
Appropriation and Influence
Democrats in Kente Cloth, June 2020
Most recently (and awkwardly) by Democrats in the House and Senate in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters. Draped in kente stoles, Democrats in the House and Senate took a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. For many, the sight of white politicians donning kente cloth was an example of shameless virtue signaling through cultural appropriation, particularly in a moment of heightened racial tension in which progressive whites are trying (sometimes awkwardly) to visibilize their anti-racist politics.
The brightly colored woven patterns inspired by kente are often appropriated as visual cue of black pride, like, for example, in Nike’s Black History Month collections.
Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2021-2022 Collection
Louis Vuitton Men’s, under the helm of Ghanaian American designer Virgil Abloh, infamously incorporated the LV motif into two looks from its Fall/Winter 2021–2022 collection.
Kente Cloth in 80s Media
Kente cloth and kente-themed accessories have been liberally adopted by African Americans and other Diasporic blacks since the 1960s, but most notably by the 1980s. Here’s an example from Ruth E. Carter’s costuming for School Daze.
Asamoah-Yaw, E., Safo-Kantanka, Osei-Bonsu. Kente Cloth: History and Culture. United Kingdom: Xlibris UK, 2017.
Boateng, Boatema. 2011. The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here: Adinkra and Kente Cloth and Intellectual Property in Ghana. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gaines, Kevin Kelly. 2006. “Projecting the African Personality: Nkrumah, the Expatriates, and Postindependence Ghana, 1957-1960,” In American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
St. Félix, Doreen. “The Rise and Rise of Amanda Gorman,” Vogue, April 7, 2021.
 “Kente Cloth: (Mmeeda, “something that has not happened before”),” https://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/7987/kente-cloth-mmeeda-something-that-has-not-happened-befor;jsessionid=4AC83D8B2016B88BCAF6F9C9550FC4B6.
 W. E. B. Du Bois receiving honorary degree on his 95th birthday, University of Ghana, Accra, February 23, 1963. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-i0745.