The Strange Story Of Nelson Mandela's Clothing LineS

A controversy is brewing in South Africa over Nelson Mandela's reported involvement in a clothing line.

When news broke earlier this month that the former South African leader had launched a line of branded apparel, portions of the proceeds from which would support one of his charities, the media covered it as a curiosity: a Nelson Mandela clothing line?

And Nelson Mandela's involvement was, at least according to the media who covered the line's launch, a given. "Nelson Mandela's Clothing Line '46664' Debuts In The U.S. (PHOTOS)" went the Huffington Post headline. Trade publication Women's Wear Daily, which had been reporting on the clothing line since 2011, wrote that the Nelson Mandela Foundation "oversees" the clothing brand in question, which it said in another story was "founded by Nelson Mandela." Styleite was just one of many news sources to refer to the brand, known as 466/64 after Mandela's Robben Island prisoner ID number, as "Nelson Mandela's Fashion Line." (It helpfully noted that the brand name was "pronounced 'four, double six, six four.'") After the North American launch, the Daily Beast wrote in its lede:

New York Fashion Week, held semi-annually in September and February, features collections from the likes of Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and Diane von Furstenberg.

But next season will feature an unusual addition to that lineup: Nelson Mandela.

But now, a spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation says that 466/64 has no affiliation with Mandela and is misleading the public by claiming an association with the former president and humanitarian hero. Says the organization in a statement:

"466/64 Fashion is making false claims that it is tied to Nelson Mandela — it is not, nor does it benefit him or his foundations. They are deliberately misleading people in the fashion industry — the name ‘Nelson Mandela' is not to be used in conjunction with any commercial products. They cleverly use his quotes in their advertising, but this is not his line of clothing; he did not launch it, nor is he associated with it."

The Strange Story Of Nelson Mandela's Clothing LineS

This is interesting because the clothing brand and the Mandela Foundation appeared to enjoy a much cozier relationship until recently. As late as September of 2011, Tokyo Sexwale — who is the South African Minister of Human Settlements, a former political prisoner held at Robben Island, and a Nelson Mandela Foundation board member — was telling the press nice, positive things about 466/64 and its relationship with Mandela and his legacy. "466/64 Apparel is not just another brand," said Sexwale, "but a way of giving back to an organization that is intimately connected with the legacy of this country's greatest leader."

For its part, 466/64 maintains that it is the official, licensed apparel brand of a charity associated with Mandela — just not of the Mandela Foundation:

A spokeswoman for 466/64 Fashion explained that the 46664 trademark (which takes its name from the prison number given to Mandela when he was incarcerated for life on Robben Island, South Africa) is managed by 46664 South Africa, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2002 to promote Nelson Mandela's humanitarian legacy. "46664 South Africa has its own board of directors and is a separate entity to the Nelson Mandela Foundation," said the statement. "46664 South Africa has officially licensed 466/64 Fashion. 466/64 Fashion's mandate from 46664 South Africa is to establish a global fashion brand that can create a sustainable income stream in order to fund various humanitarian projects. 46664 South Africa's ethos is not to use Mr. Mandela's name and image commercially. 466/64 Fashion is therefore not Mr. Mandela's clothing brand or line and should not be reported as such."

That may be what the brand says now, but until recently it certainly has played up its association with Mandela. Images distributed to the press featured quotes from Mandela, it launched in the U.S. at the South African consulate on Nelson Mandela International Day — which was also Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday — and the reason so many publications (including us) have reported that 466/64 South Africa was associated with Nelson Mandela is because that's what the 466/64 press materials said.

466/64 recently updated its Web site to remove both an FAQ section and the entire company "About" page (which now just redirects to the homepage). Cached versions of those pages reveal only a little more about the 466/64 business model, and nothing about whatever disagreement or controversy seems to have led the Mandela Foundation to disavow the brand. 466/64 apparel seems to be the product of a licensing deal between the 46664 South Africa foundation and a South African company called Brand ID, which 46664 authorized to sell apparel bearing the 466/64 brand.

According to 466/64's old FAQ, the deal was a typical flat fee + points licensing arrangement — Brand ID guaranteed 46664 a minimum annual fee plus a percentage of annual sales. The fee was not disclosed, but 466/64 said the guaranteed minimum "assists 46664 with long-term planning, through a sustainable income stream." The percentage of annual sales to be given to the charity was 7%-9% — which might not sound like a lot, but given the margins on apparel is actually considered quite substantial. (Most celebrities, by contrast, get "points" of only 1-5% on their licensed apparel deals, although the numbers may be higher if the points are on net sales as opposed to gross.) Still, it must be said that buying clothing and accessories is a notably inefficient means of contributing to any charity.

466/64 also said that it would be producing at least 60% of its wares in South Africa to support the local textile and apparel manufacturing industry. And while it certainly made a lot of its purported connection to Mandela, it also said, "An important aspect of the license agreement 46664 is the protection of Mr Mandela's Intellectual Property. This guards against the commercialisation of Mr Mandela's name and image and other elements related to him within the terms of the license agreement."

Controversy Over South African Label 466/64 [WWD]