Keeping Up Appearances
BY Keith Recker | August 24, 2012
After 160 years, much of Africa still wants Vlisco
Look around the streets of Bamako, Dakar, Kinshasa, Cotonou, Akkra, and Lome’. You will see printed cottons in a range of eye-popping colors fashioned into clothes that are simultaneously theatrical, elegant, proper and sexy. The best fabrics are from Vlisco, the 160-year old Dutch source of “veritable wax hollandais.”
Starting in the late 19th-century, several factors came together to create a taste for the batik-inspired designs whose brilliant progeny we see everywhere today in the cities of West and Central Africa. New habits of covering the body required new kinds of everyday clothing. African soldiers returning from service in Indonesia brought back a taste for intricate and showy Javanese batik. As in most cultures, African customs linking luxurious dressing with social status fuelled the fires for new materials and new styles.
The combination established a ready market for the colonial-era founders of Vlisco, whose industrially produced “real Dutch wax” wares were an instant hit in what is now Ghana – though they met with failure in Indonesia. Their Gold Coast success spread outward and into what is now Togo, Senegal, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, and beyond – markets where Vlisco is still considered the Rolls Royce of apparel textiles, and where Vlisco’s vibrant designs still resonate with African tastes and aspirations.
Obviously Javanese-looking fabrics continue in Vlisco’s line, but there is also a wide range of African-influenced patterns, as well. Some designs are rich with meaning. One is called “My Rival’s Eye,” and voices a wife’s awareness that her husband is a bit of a player. Another, depicting a bird flying out of a cage, is called “You go out, I go out,” and is the wife’s threatening response to her husband’s dalliances.
Other designs use African symbols of royal power, popular proverbs or imagery from folk tales. Some of the most delightful patterns use modern status symbols such as jet planes, cell phones, records and cds, light bulbs, oscillating fans, or steering wheels.
As diverse as the motifs are, the common threads running between the designs are also the forces behind the vitality of Western fashion. The desire to be noticed and admired, and to accumulate a sense of status, give Vlisco’s work the same power in West Africa as Dior and Chanel have in New York and Paris. Because custom tailoring is still strong in much of Africa, personal taste, ingenuity, or even rebellion, come into play with the combination of fabrics and the styling of an outfit – just as savvy Madison Avenue shoppers strive to do when assembling an eclectic ready-to-wear ensemble.
You might wonder how a vast factory in the industrial town of Helmond in gusty Holland produces textiles which fascinate African consumers. Part of Vlisco’s manner of working involves staying in close contact with their African distributors – many of them women, and many of them from the legendary “Nana-Benz” class of entrepreneurs, so named because of their success…and their fondness for large, classic, well-polished German sedans. If the women who best know the end customer don’t think a design will succeed, it doesn’t make it onto the printing floor.
You might wonder, too, what the future holds for a company like Vlisco – who has for many years seen a rise in Pakistani, Indian, and Chinese adaptations of their work. The company’s devotion to high quality, colorfast, double-sided, innovative, fashion-driven, customer-responsive goods has reserved them a place at the top of the African market. They are also appealing to younger consumers with newer, sophisticated geometrics in modern colors in their Super Wax line. Ongoing industrial innovation improves efficiency and embraces new colors and materials. New flagship stores in Cotonou, Lome and Abidjan allow Vlisco to market their fabrics alongside handbags, shoes, and other accessories made with Vlisco designs.
The downward pressure on price, though, is heavy. Vlisco wares can be as much as ten times more expensive as the copies. The competition has taken a toll on sales, which have declined in recent years. For now, though, Vlisco still wows the people who matter: their customers.
To learn more about Vlisco, or to order fabric, visit their website at www.vlisco.com. For further reading on African textiles in general, and Vlisco in particular, we recommend Duncan Clarke’s The Art of African Textiles (Thunder Bay Press, 2002).