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African Fashion: From Brown Fleming To Vlisco Today

Brown Fleming dominated the market for imitation wax prints on the West African Coast and although several attempts had been made to get an insight into Previnaire’s production process it was only around 1910 that several other companies in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and in the Netherlands managed to produce a quality of wax print that compared to the quality of Previnaire. These companies were extremely keen to do so, because the production of Previnaire’s two sided printed cloth was very time consuming, hence the production volume was very low while the demand was quickly growing. Most of their first designs were based on the Brown Fleming collection.

An important company that started by copying Brown Fleming was Ankersmit in Deventer (Netherlands), who quickly gained a solid position on the West African market. Van Vlissingen & Co in Helmond (Netherlands) followed soon.

After Brown Fleming’s death in 1912 his company was taken over by his son and his son-in-law. The First World War made an end to the HKM, the company of Previnaire, who was completely dependent on the export to West Africa. Production stopped in October 1917. Further orders were printed by Roessingh & Zoon in Veenendaal (Netherlands) until their bankruptcy in 1935. From 1927 also F.W. Ashton and Co of Newton Bank Works, part of the Calico’s Printers Association in Hyde near Manchester started printing for Brown Fleming until they bought the company in 1939. This company, since 1970 named ‘ABC’ was bought in 1992 by a Chinese group ‘Cha’, based in Hong Kong, who in 2005 transferred all its production was to Ghana. In Hyde six designers continue to work for ABC.

After the Second World War the market expanded enormously. Growing trade increased the wealth of the African customer. By gaining independence many African countries were keen to see the production taking place in their own country instead of being dependent on importing cloth. Although many European factories transferred their production, cloth was still imported, mainly from China driven by very low prices. Initially this did not pose a threat for other companies because of poor quality. But the Chinese producers managed to improve their products, still selling it for a very low price, and were able to copy new designs of other companies at an increasing speed. This turned out to become a serious threat for Van Vlissingen & Co, who had merged with Ankersmit in 1964 and renamed itself since 1970 as ‘Vlisco’. The company realized that brand protection had to be paramount. Another problem was the fact that the clients of Vlisco were ageing and the younger generation seemed less interested in the traditional motifs than their mothers and grand-mothers.

In order to survive the company had to reinvent itself in order to appeal to a changing market. From a fabric manufacturer they changed their profile into a design brand - one of the most successful in Africa. Every month a new collection is launched with a catwalk, catalogue and new models on the website. Vlisco prints and the accompanying marketing and advertising campaigns serve as inspiration for the high fashion creations for which they are used. Vlisco is also actively involved in co-creation projects with leading consumer brands in the world of fashion and design.  The traditional designs still represent 80% of their sales, but the new generation shows increasing interest in the brand. In several African cities the company has opened flagship stores, where the complete collection is on display, and developed special tailoring services, enforcing the relation between client and tailor. Tailoring is less expensive in Africa, so an individual can order a unique piece which is very much appreciated and sought after to stand out from the crowd. Vlisco aims with their own tailoring service to offer garments that are comparable to haute couture in Europe.
When the fabric leaves Vlisco’s factory in Helmond it has just the name of the brand and a serial number on the selvedge. It is only when it reaches its consumers in Africa that it gets its own life and meaning.

The Africans have permeated dress with meaning for centuries. The prints very often got symbolic names in cooperation with the consumers which contributed to its prestige. The search for the symbolic meaning of the wax print designs is complicated by the fact that its customers often perceive the motif differently from what it was meant to be traditionally – in case of the Indonesian inspired motifs – or intended by the producers. Customers often named and still do name the patterns according to certain circumstances, events, existing proverbs or ideas they wanted to express by wearing the cloth. In addition such expressions vary from region to region and country to country.

An example of this is a fabric with a print of open bird-cages and two birds flying out, that goes by the title ‘Si tu sors, je sors’ (You leave, I leave), which means to say ‘ if you think you can have an affair, so can I’. Another design is ‘ABC’ with the letters of the Alphabet, worn by women to show that they find education important. Interesting is that this kind of symbolism is only possible because the messages are open to multiple interpretations and the fabrics are worn as dresses. Nobody can criticize a woman for wearing a pretty dress. It is a discreet way of communicating your ideas and emotions.

‘Dutch Wax’ or ‘Wax Hollandais’ is an example of complex cultural appropriation and re-appropriation of an elite craft, batik, that was produced in one part of the word (Indonesia), then became merchandise in colonial trade routes (Netherlands/United Kingdom), was eventually machine made and subsequently acquired a new identity in another part of the world (West Africa). Vlisco is in the unique position that it started exporting non-wax fancy prints to Indonesia in the 1850s and printing wax in the 1910’s for West-Africa, but is now the last remaining and oldest wax printing company in Europe.

 

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