A couple of years ago I was gathering quotes for the catalogue for the "Fashion House - Marga Weimans", exhibition at the Groninger Museum and, among the people to be interviewed for the project, there was also Roger Gerards, Creative Director at Vlisco.
The Dutch wax company dates back to 1846 when Dutch entrepreneur Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen established a textile company named P.F. van Vlissingen & Co in the city of Helmond.
The company sold batik - made on the Indonesian Island of Java - in Europe and, later, on the West African coast. Batik textiles were made applying hot melted wax to the cloth and then dipping it in dye. Women in West Africa soon adopted the fabrics and, from the '30s on Vlisco's textiles acquired a more marked African style with bolder colours.
When Gerards was asked how a fabric associated throughout history with colonialism can help a contemporary designer or an artist to comment upon modern globalisation, capitalism and identity, he stated "The relationship between the Netherlands and Dutch Indies led Vlisco to produce fabrics designed in the Netherlands using batik techniques. In the ensuing years, the products ended up in West Africa. The fact that they became very popular there in the 1960s and 1970s and were embraced as 'our product', presents a different view of the colonial perspective that all Europe's products were forced onto others. A dialogue was initiated from the outset, through which the ever-changing design - from batik natural images to brightly coloured fabrics - has become not only a fashion product but a cultural product as well and the design was embraced, cherished and appropriated."
Gerards went on to explain that the post-colonial period has been entering a new phase in the last few years with Africa taking its place in the world offering what is undeniably its own identity. "The term 'Afropolitan' refers to a new perspective: the Africans of the world," he explained, continuing, "Contemporary designers and artists use the Vlisco product to endorse the fact that the old approach to Africa and the rest of the world has been replaced by a story that is remarkable, positive, proud and confident. Vlisco thus not only connects the world with Africa, but is threading old concepts with new ones."
Gerards' words recently came back to my mind since Vlisco celebrates this year its 170th anniversary: for the occasion the company released special fabrics revisiting its classic factory design and launching a celebratory patchwork design as well.
Besides, Vlisco has just released its 170th anniversary campaign video celebrating African women and Afropolitanism.
The campaign features eight inspiring women - from historical Vlisco traders and entrepreneurs Esther Aziablé, Elisabeth N'CHO, Celestina Obasi and Zainab Oriola, to Anita Erskine, a charismatic radio and TV personality from Ghana; Patricia Nzolantima, entrepreneur and philanthropist; Angelique Kidjo, world famous singer and 3-time Grammy winner, and Ejiro Amos-Tafiri, upcoming fashion designer based in Lagos. Through them Vlisco chose to honour all African women and inspire people.
The best thing about the campaign is indeed the fact that all the women come from different backgrounds and, while there are among them well-known faces, this wasn't your average celebrity-driven campaign, but a way to tell eight stories of proud and remarkable empowerment in a positive way and through colourful fabrics and textiles. Well done!
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