Like Gaudi’s modernist architecture or the stunning view to the Mediterranean, the hundreds of unlicensed sellers flogging a range of pirated luxury goods on street corners are a sight visitors to Barcelona cannot fail to notice.
Known as “top manta” because of the blanket (manta) they lay their fake designer wares on, most of the sellers are African men who made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, and scratch a living illegally by selling knock-off handbags, clothes and sunglasses to well-heeled tourists.
This week, however, the manteros announced they had created their own fashion label called Top Manta in an attempt to leave the forgeries behind and remove the stigma they have suffered. Their logo is, of course, a blanket.
“We also wanted it to look a bit like a canoe, which is the form of transport by which most of us arrived in Europe,” Aziz Fayé, a spokesman for the recently formed Union of Street Sellers, said at the label’s launch at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies cultural centre and museum this week.
Fayé said the union was still running quality control tests on T-shirts and was looking for a supplier, but sourcing trainers for the label was less of a problem; the label will buy exactly the same pirated Nike and Adidas trainers sold in the street now but with its own logo.
The sellers would like to add bags and mobile phone covers to the collection eventually, but in the meantime they are seeking financial backing.
“We’ve more or less sorted out the suppliers,” said Fayé. “What matters is that the manteros start selling Top Manta products instead of the shoes and T-shirts they’re selling now.”
Of the 400 manteros estimated to be operating in the city, around half have said they will begin selling the products within weeks. They also hope to sell their goods in markets, rather than on street corners.
The union was set up two years ago in an effort to improve the fortunes of manteros – largely undocumented migrants from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mauritania and Mali excluded from the mainstream labour force – and try to legitimise their fundamentally illegal trade.
“Things have improved since the union was created but there’s still a lot to do,” said Fayé. “We’re still persecuted by the police who prevent us from selling but if we don’t sell we can’t survive.”
Though they are pursued by police and local authorities throughout Catalonia, there is a grudging respect for manteros among many of Barcelona’s residents.
For years the city has been plagued by street crime – primarily pickpockets and bag snatchers – and manteros are viewed as people trying to make an honest living, albeit dishonestly.
Piracy is rife in Spain and little frowned upon. The manteros buy their supplies from warehouses run by Chinese importers in Badalona, a few miles north of Barcelona. Copies of Nike and Adidas trainers are imported but without logos, thus evading charges of piracy. Manteros buy the so-called “white copies” and the logos separately, which they attach themselves.
Barcelona’s leftwing government has had a contradictory relationship with the group. On the one hand, they have responded to police demands for a tougher clampdown on the illegal activity, partly fuelled by fears that that the spectacle of hundreds of poor African street merchants is bad for the city’s image.
On the other hand, this year the city council committed €800,000 (£700,000) over the next three years to establishing Diomcoop, a cooperative selling artisanal and recycled goods established by 15 former manteros.
Ndaye Fatou Mbaye, the Senegalese Diomcoop president, said he hoped it would help make manteros visible and demonstrate that “there are values and dignity behind the blanket”.
By first organising themselves as a collective and now producing their own merchandise, Faye said the traders were fighting prejudice and inequality.
“What was once an act of discrimination, calling us ‘top manta’, no longer is. Now we’re reclaiming and dignifying the concept. For us it’s a term of solidarity, struggle and acceptance,” he said.
“I’d like the T-shirts to carry our slogan – survival is not a crime – on the back.”