At his first pop-up shop in Johannesburg in 2015, Jason Storey was approached by three men who displayed an unusually keen interest in the coats, vests and waistcoats he’d made from traditional Basotho blankets. At the end of the night, remembers Storey, they admitted that they’d “come to fuck me up for hijacking their culture.” Instead, after speaking to Storey for several hours and realizing the purity of his intentions, the men became some of his biggest supporters — bringing him clients and plugging his brand on social media.
Cape Town–based Unknown Union is all about “celebrating the art, history and culture of the African continent and their contributions to the broader human experience” through fashion, says self-confessed supernerd Storey. In addition to the repurposed Basotho blankets, his collections showcase the lusona (complex Eulerian mathematics drawn in the sand) of the Chokwe people, the graphic writing systems of Mandombe and IsiBheqe and the many proverbs that are part of Maasai culture: “Coal laughs at ashes, not knowing that the same fate which has befallen them will befall it.”
The self-taught designer — who doesn’t know how to sew — takes his inspiration from the stories contained in “dusty history books.”
Storey, an Arizona-born lawyer who’s always had a penchant for natty dressing, still practices law remotely when Unknown Union needs him to (i.e., most months). He moved his family from New York to Cape Town in 2010 after an existential crisis that involved reading a lot of Aristotle, which helped Storey “contemplate life from a position of death” to establish whether his had purpose.
The self-taught designer who doesn’t know how to sew takes his inspiration from the stories in “dusty history books.” Case in point: When King Moshoeshoe was gifted a woolen blanket by a British trader in 1860, he ditched his leopardskin kaross and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders (it gets cold in Lesotho, the only country in the world that lies entirely above 4,500 feet). Soon, his countrymen had followed suit, to a point where the Basotho now say, “Kobo ke bophelo” (“The blanket is life”).
The Victoria England is the oldest of the blanket brands and features six designs, including Skin (inspired by the animal hides the blankets replaced) and Badges of the Brave — Storey’s personal favorite — which includes the various insignia of the Commonwealth forces and commemorates the 20,000 Sotho men who served in World War II. The Spitfire blanket remembers the 25 Spitfires donated to England by Lesotho (not the other way around!) in the lead-up to the Battle of Britain.
Unknown Union is not the first brand to play with the blankets — Basotho designer Thabo Makhetha has transformed them into glorious haute couture creations and Louis Vuitton suffered a severe case of foot-in-mouth with a thinly veiled attempt at cultural appropriation — but Storey is the first designer to obtain permission from both the Lesotho Royal Family and Aranda Textile Mills, the official manufacturers of the blanket. He even showed me a pair of Unknown Union baseball caps autographed by King Letsie III and Queen ’Masenate.
All of the designs — from the repurposed blankets to the garments adorned with proverbs, writing systems and mathematical equations — are designed to be worn by young people in real-life situations. The idea is not to be an authority on anything, explains Storey, but rather “a point of entry” for his garments to initiate conversations that otherwise would not have happened.
There’s only one way to find out if it works — hit the streets in one of his shirts or jackets and see what people say.
More: Unknown Union
- How to buy: The brand’s HQ is on Bloem Street in the heart of Cape Town (map). A second store is set to open in Maboneng in Johannesburg in June 2018. Orders are also accepted by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Whatsapp (+27 63 015 9263). There are plans for an online store in July 2018.
- Cost: A full coat will set you back 7,500 rand ($600) while a sleeveless waistcoat is 2,500 rand ($200). A dress shirt decorated with Maasai proverbs goes for 1,500 rand ($120). Ships globally.
- Fun fact: The pinstripes on Basotho blankets descend from a popular weaving fault. The stripe dictates how a blanket should be worn — which all Unknown Union designs take into account.
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