By Melinda Ozongwu
The material that we call African print or wax is a multi-million dollar business. As African as these textiles are, the Dutch companies that produce and sell the majority of our fine wax and lace materials are benefiting off an African industry and potentially destroying its authenticity. And we, the African customer, are part of the problem.
I was once given six yards of beautiful Dutch wax material. It was a kaleidoscope of colour, rich with texture and print. It’s amazing how a few yards of material can be so powerful. If you’ve ever stepped in a room filled with rolls of Dutch wax, Ankara, Hollandaise or African fabric you know what I’m talking about. Wearing this heavily patterned, bold, rich fabric is a transformative experience. Since then I have worn African wax not in traditional attire but in beautifully constructed, modern pieces that are very much in trend.
With celebrities like Beyoncé and Kelis wearing clothes by African designers like Lisa Folawiyo (Jewel by Lisa), as well as being introduced to our designers, a growing number of people are being exposed to the beauty and versatility of the African fabric.
American designer Maya Lakes’ Boxing Kitten line is rich with African print and worn by celebrities like Erykah Badu, Rihanna and Solange Knowles. Her burlesque-inspired designs make good use of the vibrancy of the print and the structure of the material.
Arise magazine editor and author of New African Fashion, Helen Jennings points out that, “Having that calibre of celebrity wear designs by African designers, made from an African fabric, helps that fabric to be taken seriously alongside others such as silk, leather and satin.”
So business ought to be booming for local manufacturers of African wax material, for local consumption and for the export market. But here’s the thing, Africa is importing wax material and other “African” textiles made solely by non-African manufacturers.
The popular “African print” textile manufacturer Vlisco aren’t hiding their origin. Their trademark is ‘Veritable Wax Hollandais’ meaning “Real Dutch Wax”. They aren’t lying about their brand; it isn’t one of those “Made in America” but really Made in Mexico things. It’s Dutch, and it’s manufactured exclusively in Holland. The company’s two other brands Woodin and Uniwax do produce in Africa as well as Holland, but they all fall under the same umbrella.
The Vlisco company’s website has a meet-the-employees page with some very positive testimonials from staff, ranging from production managers to quality controllers. I’m no PR specialist but I know that a testimonial from an African would be good right about here. With over a dozen designers in the company not a single one is African. "We don't try to make our designs African," says Vlisco’s creative director Henk Bremer, "but there seems to be a click with Dutch design. I think it is because West Africans like innovation and novelty."
I would contest that statement. The first country Vlisco exported to was the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), they imitated their traditional handmade batik designs and saturated the market with them. Were those also Dutch designs? I highly doubt that you could look at any Vlisco print and see Dutch design. Wax material is as African as a tulip is Dutch.
In 2006, 75% of the wax on the African market carried Vlisco designs (Source: Vlisco; click on 2006 in the timeline). The company disputed the figure, claiming they’d fallen victim to the copycats. (Counterfeiting is a real problem across Africa; copycats will duplicate any good product at half the price or even less.)
Forget the obvious Nike and Gucci imitations from India and China; we are seeing fake wood and metal plastic-coated beads that are made in China being used in locally made jewellery. And though certain African countries like Cameroon are enforcing their copyright laws, seized goods often reappear on the market making it an increasingly difficult problem to tackle.)
Vlisco’s strategy in combating the copycats was to shorten turnaround times and rebrand. They also extended their product line to include accessories and shoes. Despite their efforts you can still buy replicas at a quarter of the price of the “original”, the only difference being that these are Made in China. By making their brand more visible, showing at fashion shows, increasing their advertising, and opening flagship stores on the continent they continue to flourish and grow despite the copycats.
But while Vlisco enjoys a €100-million annual turnover, what becomes of authentic African prints and fabrics? What becomes of our local textile industry? Vlisco were pushed out of Indonesia by a government that understood the need to protect their local industry. They did so by levying high import duties on textiles. That was in the 1900s. This is standard practice by countries all over the world when one of their industries is developing. But in 2012, our local governments don't appear to be doing much to protect our textile industries. Since individual brands don’t yet have the budgets to advertise like Vlisco, our governments shouldn’t only be protecting the local industry they should be supporting it, not selling off all our raw materials and leaving us with a poor foundation on which to develop high quality goods.
Our countries are flooded with imports of second-hand clothing from all over the world, and our respective governments let this happen too. But the importation of second-hand clothes is even more detrimental to our textile industries than anything a company like Vlisco could do. Our manufacturers can never compete with a pair of second-hand jeans that sells for $1.
When design houses like Burberry and Michael Kors start showcasing African print motifs and African-inspired fabrics, these are stepping stones to the growth in mainstream popularity of our patterns and fabrics. But with things as they are right now, increased exposure to African fabrics equals increased sales only for non-African companies like Vlisco.
I am not a fan of supporting African products for no other reason than that they’re African products. It has to make sense, the products have to be of good quality and the prices have to be within reason. We might not be there with products in certain industries, but we are with textiles; we have beautiful prints of good quality. There is no denying the fantastic job Vlisco is doing for itself. If we can’t change much else, we should at least look at ourselves as consumers. We are paying premium prices for Dutch wax and missing something more authentic that’s right under our noses. And in doing so we continue to discredit our product, dilute its history and wreck the potential future of our craft.
I think it’s high time we took back our tulips.
-- Reproduced with permission from This is Africa. You can follow Melinda Ozongwu on Twitter @melindaembrace