Africa’s Fabric is Dutch; A Look at the brand ‘Vilsco’

vilscoHELMOND, THE NETHERLANDS — Internet connectivity across much of Africa can be mind-numbingly slow and unreliable, but that hasn’t stopped about 9,000 young, affluent women from braving the sluggish system to discuss something that matters a great deal to them: the latest design trends from a luxury fabric brand called Vlisco.

A Vlisco fabric called “Le sac du Michelle Obama.”
The “Fan” pattern, from Vlisco’s “Funky Grooves” collection.

Gathering online from cities in Angola, Senegal, Ghana, Benin and the like, their friendly banter in a smattering of French, English and Portuguese on Vlisco’s Facebook fan page focuses on the minutiae of a label that appears to be unmistakably African — and that has been sold by local vendors to wealthy and well-off Africans for more than a century.

But what makes the brand’s distinctive, double-sided, wax-printed cotton fabric so remarkable is that it is designed and manufactured in a small, rather nondescript town in southern Holland.

To the uninitiated in the West — and, indeed, to many Africans — the adulation heaped on this Dutch colonial-era company by the latest generation of cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile Africans might seem misplaced.

Not so, says Vlisco’s creative director, Roger Gerards, who shuttles between Holland and various cities in Africa at least once a month.

“Vlisco has developed through a symbiotic and very intense relationship between African consumers and traders as well as Dutch design and manufacturing since 1846,” he said. “In that sense, we see that the brand is driven by consumers and their taste, particularly that of West and Central Africa.”

Mr. Gerards’s team of designers, based in a pristine studio in Helmond, hail from countries as diverse as Cameroon, Germany, Nigeria, France, Mexico, Britain and, of course, the Netherlands.

“Historically, a lot of our designs were created at the request of certain African traders,” he explained, pointing to a giant tangerine swatch of fabric decorated with red and blue stars of all sizes dating from the 1950s. It is just one of approximately 300,000 textiles in Vlisco’s archives, fabrics that hang meticulously along seemingly endless rails in a building adjacent to the company’s pulsing manufacturing block.

Today, however, the designers glean inspiration not only from African sources like local landscapes, allegorical objects used in daily life like mirrors or desktop fans, traditional handwoven kente cloth and abstract interpretations of tribal art, but also from international architectural movements, Islamic geometrical patterns, modern music and tongue-in-cheek pop art. Take a look at some of these patterns;

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It was through a series of historic quirks and intrepid entrepreneurship that Vlisco eventually emerged as the dominant player among several 19th-century Dutch, British and French companies vying for a slice of the lucrative trade — first in genuine, and later in reproductions — of wax-printed batiks from what was then called the Dutch East Indies and today is Indonesia.

Because genuine Indonesian batik was very labor-intensive and, therefore, expensive to produce, European mills began to take on the work, automating the dyeing process to make the fabric more affordable.

By the end of the 19th century, Vlisco’s “wax hollandais” cloth was sold to Africans along the oceanic trading route back to Indonesia. As the years passed, patterns and color palettes were adapted to West and Central African tastes until, by the 1930s, Vlisco’s fabrics designed for the elite from that part of Africa had come to dominate the region’s import market.

This early chapter in Vlisco’s history has prompted more than a few intellectuals and cultural commentators to question or criticize the company for building a business on products that they say are not entirely authentically African. Vocal among them is the Nigerian scholar Tunde M. Akinwumi, who published a paper in the Journal of Pan African Studies in 2008 titled “The ‘African Print’ Hoax.”

Many others, however, view Vlisco’s Afro-European heritage with far less suspicion. The celebrated British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, whose work explores colonialism and post-colonialist race and class, has referred to Vlisco as “cross-bred,” and he uses its fabrics to create many of the European-style Victorian-era dresses that make up his work.

And many of Africa’s fashion designers have long chosen Vlisco for their collections.

Odio Mimonet, who shows at Lagos Fashion & Design Week, said that when she started her brand 16 years ago, she began buying Vlisco fabrics “for the smoothness of its feel and the steadfastness of the dyes, not to mention the vitality of its colors and the fact that it is timeless, somewhat classic and also lasts a lifetime.”

But the Nigerian designer said they also had a personal appeal: “I remember my grandma tying Vlisco fabrics as wrappers when I visited her in the village home, which might have to be some 35 years ago. I remember her hugs and that familiar smell.”

Mr. Gerards has his own stories of how Vlisco has become part of the social web of West and Central Africa.

For example, in Togo, he said, “the trade of Vlisco fabrics is exclusively arranged by certain families, with licenses granted by law, and within these families, the trade is through the matriarchal line — so the mother passes on her license to her daughter, who passes it on to her daughter, and so on.

“One important family, called Creppy, is the chair of this group of families, and Madame Rosa Creppy bought the first Mercedes in Togo, which is why these women are called ‘Mama Benz’ after Mercedes-Benz. You can still see the picture of the first Mercedes-Benz in a room above her shop in Lomé,” he said.

Hans Ouwendijk, chief executive of Vlisco Group, says that although a small number of European fashion designers like Dries van Noten, Jean Paul Gaultier and Junya Watanabe are experimenting with Vlisco fabrics, the majority — some 95 percent — of the company’s sales are generated in Africa.

“The fact is that the product is close to the consumer’s heart in Africa,” he said. “What surprised me most when I first started working for Vlisco was that the African consumers really feel like they own our brand, not the other way around. And it’s how they perceive their products that counts.”

Mr. Ouwendijk was hired in 2010 to spearhead a rejuvenation and rapid expansion of the Vlisco Group, which was acquired that year for the equivalent of $151 million by Actis, a private equity fund based in London.

The group, which also includes the more affordable West African-based textile brands of Uniwax, Woodin and GTP, produced 58.8 million yards, or 53.8 million meters, of fabric in 2011, 4.4 million yards more than in 2010. Its 2011 net sales were €225 million, or $291.65 million, up from €186 million in 2010.

Mr. Ouwendijk has been particularly bullish about reaffirming Vlisco fabrics as luxury products — from the Super-Wax range, which typically sells for €65 to €80 for a six-yard bolt, to the Luxury Editions range, which feature laser-cut panels, cushioned layers of organza, gold and silver thread or Swarovski crystal embellishment and cost more than €2,000 for six yards.

With five sleek flagship stores in Cotonou, Benin; Lomé, Togo; Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Lagos, Nigeria; and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Ouwendijk now has his sights on further expansion. In addition to bolstering wholesale operations in the other cities around the continent where Vlisco already is sold, the company has identified what it calls geographic “taste clusters,” city, country or regional markets that share preferences, and is planning to develop products for them.

“We have Eastern African market hubs like Nairobi and others firmly in our sights for the very near future, as well as expanding our network into travel retail outlets in airports in Cape Town and Johannesburg as an entry point into southern and South Africa,” he said.

The next big step in Vlisco’s business development, says Mr. Ouwendijk, is for the company to create its own ready-to-wear collection. It already has begun selling bomber-style jackets and handbags in Vlisco fabrics, recognizing that the younger generation of Africa’s luxury consumers are gradually moving from away from having dressmakers create custom-made clothing for all but the most special occasions.

“This is one reason why we invest the way we do in mass media advertising outlets like outdoor city billboards and prime-time TV commercials on the biggest African channels,” he said.

“Our ad campaigns always feature Vlisco’s quarterly textile collections as finished ready-to-wear garments, which are currently just suggestions on how to use our fabrics. But in a way, this is also preparing our customers for when Vlisco ready-to-wear really does arrive.”

(Credit; Robb Young for The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/fashion/15iht-ffabric15.html?pagewanted=all)

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