VLISCO: What’s the Connection Between Dutch Design and African Identity?
VLISCO, a Dutch owned company is one of the world’s biggest players when it comes to the production of African prints and its relationship with the African continent goes as far back as the 1900s. Its dazzling textiles are a firm part of West and Central African culture. Just how did a fabric not owned or produced by Africans become an intrinsic part of the continent’s fashion landscape? Ester Huigen, brand Communications manager for the company explains why VLISCO has found a home in Africa.
Belinda: The Vlisco brand is embedded in African culture, elaborate on the history of Vlisco and if there have been any challenges reconciling the fact that the brand is not owned by Africans but is popularly and most notably worn by Africans?
Ester Huigen: In 1846, Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen started to make batik-inspired hand printed fabrics inHelmond, theNetherlands. First, he sold them in Europe, then inIndonesia. At a certain moment in history a ban on textile imports was implied by the Indonesian government. Besides that, West African soldiers who were working inIndonesiawent back to their home countries taking fabrics fromIndonesiawith them. While travelling between the Netherlands and Indonesia, Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen discovered the West African market. A combination of these factors meant that from since the 1900s onward, the West African market became the focus for the company. The fabric designs evolved, and changed into a different style that was more in line with the African identity. Since 1950s, Vlisco has been a dominating player in the African market. African women used to communicate with the fabrics – Instead of speaking out their opinions, feelings, beliefs etc., they chose a certain fabric design to wear, this way they expressed what they wanted to say. The fabric designs often have a deep meaning and tell stories. In that sense, African women make the fabric their own, and part of them. The cultural link between the Netherlands and Africa is also found in the co-creation process. The designs are developed and the fabrics are produced in the Netherlands. In Africa, a woman buys the fabric and turns it into an outfit that is totally unique and totally adapted to her own taste. Again, she makes it her own. In that sense, there is a unique story and connection between Dutch design and African identity.
Belinda: We have seen a love affair with the Ankara fabric and other variations like Java. What changed the tide from it being a fabric that was worn by women at the market as they got on with their trade to the point where today, you will see the rich, famous and the who is who of the social circle wearing it?
Ester Huigen: Vlisco has long been associated with elegance, class, femininity, giving a certain kind of ‘status’ to the person wearing it. But changes inAfricatake place with an incredible speed in different areas. The retail landscape is changing, (digital) media has changed a lot, and new generations of African women, although they are very much inspired by what is happening in the world around them, find it important to show something of their own African identity, which they are so very proud. I think this ‘mix’ between western influence and appealing to African roots is what makes Vlisco very attractive. Vlisco tries to surprise consumers time and time again with new collections of designs and we see people can’t wait until new collections are launched. The emotion that comes with the products is very important – that is what brands are about.
Belinda: There are other African fabrics like Kente, which originates in Ghana, Tye and Dye among others, how does Vlisco maintain its luxury brand status, stay competitive and keep the edge it has in the textile industry on the continent?
Ester Huigen: Design is key in Vlisco’s strategy. In everything we do, design must be leading. With our design mindedness we try to be aspirational and very renewing to our consumers. And, Vlisco aims to be innovative in all kinds of areas. For example, at the end 2010, we launched the ‘Luxury Edition, laces, embellished wax block fabrics; voiles etc. are part of this luxury product range.
Belinda: If Vlisco is marketed as a luxury brand, how financially accessible is it for people on the continent?
Ester Huigen: There is a huge number of people that can afford it. But I’d rather talk about how important it can be for people to own a piece of a luxury brand. Some people buy it easily and regularly, others that really adore the brand are saving in order to be able to finally buy one piece. It is about making choices who you’re aiming at as a brand; you can’t mean anything to anybody.
Belinda: Within Africa, which countries/regions do you have your biggest market base?
Ester Huigen: Nigeria and DRC are our biggest markets, followed by Ivory Coast, Ghana, among others.
Belinda: Vlisco is produced in the Netherlands but Africa is its biggest market. Do you have any textile factories on the continent producing these materials?
Ester Huigen: Vlisco is one of the brands that is part of Vlisco Group, and the only brand that is 100 percent developed and produced in the Netherlands. But Vlisco Group has three other brands as well: Woodin, developed and produced in Ghana; Uniwax, developed and produced in Ivory Coast and GTP, developed and produced in Ghana. The Group owns 3 factories – one in the Netherlands and two on the continent. The brands are positioned each in a totally different way.
Belinda: You opened a boutique in the DRC in 2010, what has the reception been like and are there plans to roll out more boutiques to other African countries?
Ester Huigen: The reason we started opening flagship stores is that we wanted to give the consumer the total Vlisco brand experience. Besides the fabrics we are also offering Fashion (outfits), shoes, bags and accessories. However, these are mainly to inspire the consumers. The goal of the Vlisco Boutiques is mainly image driven. Vlisco currently owns four of these boutiques: One in Cotonou (Benin), one in Lomé (Togo), one in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and one in Kinshasa (DRC). We plan to open more of these boutiques but not on a very large scale, only in some strategic locations. Besides that we have boutiques that are owned by third parties.
Belinda: What has the response to the collections you launched in 2011 been like?
Ester Huigen: Very good, very appreciated! It is so nice to read all the reactions on fashion blogs and to hear back from the countries that again there was a rush on the latest fabrics.
Belinda: Does Vlisco work with or collaborate with any African fashion designers to get keep the brand alive in the minds of its core lovers?
Ester Huigen: Sometimes we sponsor African designers with fabrics when they are going to participate to a fashion show. And we have an educational program, the Vlisco Tailor Academybut that is aimed at tailors. By giving technical training to tailors and showing them how you could look at designs when creating an outfit, they will be able to improve their quality.
Belinda: what’s next for Vlisco and what should we continue to expect from this long standing brand?
Ester Huigen: In the near future we will be much more active in the area of education. We are working on a project in that area – that’s all I can say about it right now. Furthermore we are expanding into countries in other parts of the African continent. We will accelerate our design drive and innovation capacity in order to be able to surprise our consumers!
Image by VLISCO.