[ Back ]PDFPrintE-MailvCal/iCal

Vlisco and the construction of African identity

January 28 2012


In 2012 the ArtEZ Modelectoraat will release another monograph in their monograph series. Subject will be  Dutch fabric manufacturer Vlisco. The monograph is written by Jos Arts, who previously also wrote monographs on Oilily, Jan Jansen and Marlies Dekkers.

In Africa, a continent which for hundreds of years was largely dominated by Western colonial powers, local populations often used clothing to indicate their standpoint with regard to these colonial powers. Some purposely adopted Western clothing in order to align themselves with the Western elite, but more frequently, in particular after the decolonisation process began to gather pace, most Africans chose to wear authentic African clothing, to emphasise their African identity.

The Dutch fabric manufacturer Vlisco, founded in 1846, has played a remarkable role in this construction of African identity. Vlisco prints fabrics on an industrial scale using a procedure derived from Indonesian batik, a traditional printing method which was adopted from the Dutch colony of Nederlands-Indië (today's Indonesia), taken back to the Netherlands in the early nineteenth century, and there developed and perfected for industrial production. At that time the Indonesian colony was also the most important market for Vlisco's products, but as demand began to dwindle in the early twentieth century the company started looking for new markets. It found them in West and Central Africa, where Vlisco succeeded in gaining a strong market position by the 1930s and has continued to strengthen that position right up to the present day.

Even though Vlisco fabrics are considerably more expensive than locally produced equivalents and Asian imitations, well-to-do West and Central African women almost always prefer le véritable wax Hollandais Vlisco: the fabrics are of higher quality, the colours more beautiful, and the patterns more inventive. In effect, Vlisco has transformed a traditional handicraft process into a luxury product manufactured on an industrial scale. On the African market Vlisco is a premium A-brand, a luxury fashion brand that women want to be seen wearing.

Remarkably, in so doing Vlisco has also become an unmistakeable part of African cultural heritage. Certainly in recent decades, wearing relatively expensive Vlisco fabrics is seen by many Africans not only as a sign of success but as definitively African, even though the fabrics themselves are designed and produced exclusively in the Netherlands. The question then inexorably arises: how did an entirely Dutch product attain such an important position in African culture? How can it be that so many women express their African identity with a European product? And not least: how has Vlisco, in a strongly globalised fashion world that seems to depend increasingly on cheap production, managed to retain and even strengthen its market position, despite heavy competition from cheaper imitations?

Apart from the quality of Vlisco fabrics, the answer to these questions would seem to be concealed in the fact that African women are not just passive consumers, but also the creative co-determiners of Vlisco's colours and designs. Their tastes and preferences, constantly changing in a complex interplay between consumers, (female) fabric traders and tailors, represents essential market information which is channelled, by various routes, back to Vlisco designers. These designers translate and interpret these changing market preferences in quarterly new collections which, while they are rooted in African tradition, traditional colours and patterns, also continually renew this tradition with fresh colour combinations and designs: a mirror, in fact, of modern Africa.

The monograph Vlisco, part of a series on Dutch fashion brands and designers, is due to appear on January 28th, simultaneously with the opening of the Vlisco exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem.