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Robert Mugabe-Inspired Fashion Line Lands In Hot Water

The name Robert Mugabe brings many things to mind: 100-trillion-dollar banknotes and a 26-year run as Zibabwe's president is among them. One thing that doesn't come to mind: fashion. Still, the Zimbabwean leader is being celebrated with a controversial clothing line.

A label called "House of Gushungo" produces t-shirts, umbrellas, berets, and other sportswear featuring the leader’s "R G Mugabe" signature. It also manufactures a "1924" line—signifying the year of Mugabe’s birth, with products that were released in time for the president’s 89th birthday celebrations last month. The brand, a subsidiary of the Yedu Nesu company, was created “to propel [Mugabe’s] identity, to maintain his legacy,” Yedu Nesu's chief executive Justin Matenda told BBC. But now, House of Gushungo is receiving flack from all sides of Zimbabwe’s political sphere.

Now comes dispute from Mugabe’s own political party. Matenda claims that Mugabe gave the brand his blessing when it was established in 2010, with no intention of reaping a profit from it. “The president does not want to make money,” he told an African correspondent. He explained that the brand’s informal agreement with Mugabe stipulated that the company donate to humanitarian causes once it turned a profit. Matenda however, was “reluctant to discuss profits made so far.”

Since that agreement lacked a paper trail, Mugabe’s own Zanu-PF party is now trying to patent the leader’s signature in order to make money off his likeness, imposing financial sanctions that would include the House of Gushungo's apparel.

“It’s an intellectual property which we have to maintain," a Zanu-PF spokesman told BBC. "We have allowed every Jack and Jill to do what they like about the whole thing. We want to control it to make sure whoever is going to use it will have to pay something. So we are going to restrict it as a party.”

Matenda disagrees, saying that Yedu Nesu designs all of House of Gushungo’s products independently, without assistance from political organizations. In his mind, “Yedu Nesu has the sole rights to market, distribute and manufacture the brand…the Robert Mugabe regalia.” The company does not, however, own any rights to Mugabe’s signature, nor is it publicly registered with the government. (And, as far as we can tell, it doesn't even have a Website.)

Still, Matenda says, “we decided there is Versace, there is Polo, there is Tommy Hilfiger, people are putting on these labels, but don’t know who they are and what the story is. We know President Mugabe’s story, we know who he is.”

House of Gushungo’s quarrel with the Zanu-PF party comes at a particularly turbulent time in Zimbabwean politics. On Saturday, Mugabe is expected to issue a constitutional referendum that could pave the way for hypothetical free elections, which would follow in July. If the referendum is passed into law, Mugabe is expected to go head-to-head with Zimbabwe’s current Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, who also serves as president of the Movement for Democratic Change party.

Even though the brand is not affiliated with the Zanu-PF party, Tsvangirai (Mugabe's bitter rival) sees it as a fashionable ploy to lure young voters. His spokesperson told BBC that, “The Mugabe fashion craze is a desperate attempt by his brand managers to catch the young voters. It’s an attempt to seduce the young, first-time voters who are believed to be almost a million—a very big number considering Zimbabwe’s voting population.”

Still, Tsvangarai’s spokesperson feels that the clothing line isn't likely to impact the country's politics. “No amount of [Mugabe] fashion labels will save him in the next election," he said.