A new trade war is unrolling across Africa: a battle between Chinese textile-makers and a colonial-era company from the Netherlands, original maker of the eye-catching “Dutch Wax” fabrics often known as “Africa Wax.”
Little known at home or anywhere else in Europe, the house of Vlisco is one of Africa’s most-known brands, suppliers since 1846 of the bright cloths stamped with extravagant designs that are a hallmark of the continent.
But China’s deepening foray into Africa has upset the makers of “Guaranteed Dutch Wax,” who say workaholic Chinese are copying their designs as soon as they hit ports to dump cheaper low-quality lookalikes on African marketplaces.
“For the price of a yard [meter] of Vlisco, you can buy eight to 10 copies,” said Ed Hessing, the company’s sales manager. “The competition from China is a threat.”
“We must defend ourselves against dirt-cheap Chinese copies. We aim to become the top high-end fashion brand of Africa,” Hessing said.
Striving to become a luxury brand in impoverished Africa in times of economic turbulence might sound outlandish but is exactly what the old established Dutch firm is up to.
For the first time in 160 years, the company this week threw its collection of fabrics onto a Paris catwalk for a crowd of several hundred people in the hopes of grabbing the spotlight in the world’s fashion capital.
“We want to create a buzz around our fabrics,” said Hessing, who says the original Dutch cloth is far hardier than the imitation roller-printed version.
The real thing lasts 15 years and is color-fast, he said.
Inspired by Indonesia’s batik method of dying cloth, a Dutch merchant family called the Van Vissingens industrialized the method in Europe in the 19th century. By the late 1800s they were supplying the bulk of the Indonesian market as well as selling in West African ports where Dutch freighters set anchor.
Popular from the start in fabric-loving Africa, the Dutch-made cloth continues to come bearing a stamp saying “Vlisco Guaranteed Dutch Wax,” an imprint that often features proudly in finished garments — just as Westerners like to flaunt logos such as D&G or Nike.
“Through the ages African women have really appreciated Dutch designs, even over the African designs on the market,” said Annette Schmidt, curator of an exhibition on African wax at the Dutch National Ethnology Museum.
Vlisco, which describes itself as the biggest textile company in the Netherlands, has a dozen-odd designers among its staff of 500 — but not a single artist is African.
“We don’t try to make our designs African,” the firm’s creative director Henk Bremer said. “But there seems to be a click with Dutch design, I think it is because West Africans like innovation and novelty.”
At the Paris show, the company paraded its own designs cut in its latest collection of fabrics as well as outfits by three young African stylists, winners each of a 5,000 euro Vlisco fashion prize.
“Africa is evolving, Africa is modernizing,” Bremer said. “They use our designs as their inspiration.”
Patterns might incorporate mobile phones, computers, modern kitchens and roller skates.
“I saw the roller skate design on women in villages in Mali who I’m sure had never seen a real one, but I guess they saw the humor,” Schmidt said.
“All popular designs are named and have a specific meaning” said Bremer, adding that most often the fabrics were given names by local saleswomen.