Brilliantly colored fabrics universally recognized as African but actually produced by a Netherlands manufacturer are attracting attention at a U.S. art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The fabrics are made by Vlisco, which has been producing waxprint fabric styles for export since 1846. Vlisco started shipping fabrics to Africa after the Dutch East India Company’s Indonesian market became saturated.
Vlisco still makes the fabrics, but they’ve become so closely associated with West African and Central African fashion that most people assume that they are made in Africa, New York Times reported.
The fabrics are featured on high fashion runways around the world. The brand has a serious celebrity fan base, too, Philly Style reported: Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani, and Jill Biden have all been photographed in Vlisco.
Each fabric has its own story thanks to the marketing skills of African women who figured out the power of storytelling long before marketing was a word. The museum exhibit is named “Vlisco: African Fashions on a Global Stage,” and the fabrics highlighted there tell many stories.
“It’s very much a story about appropriation, reappropriation, and cultural integration,” said Dilys Blum, the museum’s senior curator of costume and textiles and organizer of the Vlisco show, Philly Style reported.
When Vlisco started selling to African countries, it sold through agents who distributed the fabrics to vendors—mostly women—who would then sell the textiles in open-air markets. When the fabric left the Vlisco factory in Holland, it was labeled with a stock number. The sellers started naming the fabric, often after proverbs, local music, or current events, according to Fast Co Design. They did this partly to identify the material more easily, and partly because they knew it was a better marketing strategy to give the fabric a familiar, symbolic or tongue-and-cheek name.
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Vlisco has created an online repository for some of the stories, with a dedicated website for gathering them and shedding light on how the fabrics got their African names. The company is trying to collect all the stories from all over the world and share them with a goal of building a public library.
Each fabric can have multiple different names. Some of the stories are very personal, some, picked up from the market and some are attached to a special occasion, the company said at its website.
“Since 1846 Vlisco has produced thousands of different fabrics,” the company says. “Not all of them are on the Vlisco Stories website.”
One Vlisco pattern is known as Wounded Heart, Love Bomb, Dynamite, and Cœur Blessé. In Togo, the pattern has acquired a special meaning. The drawing depicts the state of mind of a woman who knows her husband is cheating on her and is leaving her with a broken heart.
Also known as Biri Kam Biri, Oniye (Plume d’Oiseaux) and Biri Kam Biri, the “Live and Let Live” pattern is considered one of the first “off-color” patterns that was popular among the traditional Igbo people, according to a post on the Vlisco site. “Normally the Igbo prefer patterns in established colors such as the well-known red and ochre. By wearing this, young, well-educated women express their independence and let it be known that they are not slaves to tradition.”
On Oct. 14, 2012, the Vlisco Stories Team put out a request saying, “We are desperately seeking the story behind this fabric. Can you help? Add your story.”
On Jan. 8, 2016, Faustin Marius Agbahungba replied, saying this fabric is called “‘The Head of Family and Children’ The parent with the baby boy in the arm and his siblings at his feet — three girls in red coats, the eldest boy standing on the left.”
Vlisco still has a relationship with vendors in Africa, and that has complicated the narrative, Blum told Fast Co. Design. Fabrics are named after architectural landmarks and iconic people — Michelle Obama has one named for her purse.
“By naming something you make it your own,” Blum said:
Ownership over the fabric was more than just symbolic. Families in Africa would arrange for the license to sell the fabrics exclusively. The trade is typically passed through the matriarchal line, with the mother handing down the license to her daughter and her to her daughter. Often the women-named fabrics would convey specific messages or portray a specific culture. For example, a popular fabric with a print of open bird cages with two birds flying out is sometimes called “You Leave, I Leave”—as in, if you’re not going to invest fully in this marriage, I’m out, too.
Vlisco is not universally celebrated. Critics such as Tunde Akinwumi, wrote in a 2008 article that Vlisco’s origins are misleading, especially since the company says it’s the “originator of African Wax.”
Vlisco misleads customers by pretending to sell authentic African designs that are actually based on Chinese, Indian, Javan, Arabic and European imagery, he argued in his paper, “The ‘African Print’ Hoax.”
He called for a new African aesthetic based on traditional African fabrics, such as kente, adire, aso oke and bogolanfini, saying he hoped textile producers and governments would help change Africa’s image to a more authentic one.
In his book “Vlisco,” (published May 2012) Jos Arts countered the critics, saying they misunderstand a main principle of fashion — that it changes constantly. So even if Vlisco’s fabrics were initially not authentically African, “the century long process of appropriation and mutual influence ensures that is has become so.”
Vlisco fabrics are used extensively by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, who dresses headless mannequins in baroque gowns and suits to challenge Western colonial history, Arts said.