Democratization of value in emerging markets

By | September 7, 2016

Original Woodin designer African prints

There’s something interesting happening in West Africa. Known for its fashion sense and style, exuberantly patterned textiles dominate men’s and women’s apparel. Until now, the impact of cheaper Chinese imports had been felt by the traditional manufacturers, in Ghana particularly.

But this is not where the story ends. Today, the majority of Dutch designs available on African markets are low-cost reproductions made in China. The entry of these Chinese textiles has upset Dutch and local producers of “authentic” wax prints.

What has happened is that these imitation African prints from China are themselves gaining ground among discerning customers:

These [Bigname waxprint] producers are trying to protect their hold on the market by appealing to ideas of “originality” and legal notions of “authenticity”. But consumers are more interested in the quality and look of the cloth, and the way it reflects the wearer’s taste and status.

And this is the interesting twist in the tale that caught my attention. Bypassing discussions on what exactly is authentic about a Dutch company mass producing imitation Indonesian batik and creating a whole new market in “African prints” (ankara)  – I want to talk about consumer’s choice. By the by, it was consumer choice that created the market for the “authentic” in the first place, allegedly as West Africans took to that batik inspired fabric after teh Indonesians rejected it.

Be that as it may, what is happening now, is then no more than a repeat of what happened back then. Just as mass produced English and Dutch textiles overshadowed and shrank the indigenous handmade fabric culture in West Africa’s diverse nations, the Chinese manufacturers are now doing the same. Mass production commodified batik, and made it affordable for the mass market to enjoy the styles and trends of their wealthier brethren, if not the look and feel. I can pick up a beautiful batik sarong from Indonesia – “authentic” – for around $15 Singapore dollars. I know it must be mass produced. Here’s the insight from the original article:

Instead of relying on labels and techno-signs of authenticity as per the Vlisco style guide, Togolese turn to the cloth’s material properties to establish its worth. Value is ascribed through the senses, by touching, smelling or even tasting the cloth.

Value is being ascribed by the customers themselves. If this isn’t the democratization of design, then I don’t know what is. In India, something similar seems to have happened in the recent past. Banarasi silk saris are family heirlooms, their worth and value goes beyond the difference in use of pure gold wire, or simply gold coloured thread.

Yet, the Chinese managed to not only disrupt that entire market, but just as in the case of Ghana’s textile industry, affected the weavers of the sarees. From available articles, it seems the earlier hubbub has died down and instead the tone of the articles turn to debates over whether you are wearing the cheap Chinese fakes or the original handloomed ones.

While distinguishing a “good fake” from an original needs experience with handlooms, the best way to know the difference is to first assess the textile. A pure Banarasi is woven on tissue or raw silk, not synthetic materials like polyester, hybrid fabrics, artificial or Chinese silk. Machine-made saris also do not have floats between the weft and the warp which can be spotted on the reverse. The price is a big giveaway too. In Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market, for instance, Banarasi brocade is available for as little as Rs.120 a metre. It is clearly fake. The original ones start upwards of Rs.600 a metre.

While the African report has this to say,

In Togo, societal norms of ascribing value to fakes and copies are at odds with global regulatory regimes that are based on a specific proprietary relationship between authorship and ownership.

the Indians seem to be taking a pragmatic approach now, as the changes occurring have had more time to settle in:

It is an ironical prosperity. “Even in the last 10 years, Varanasi is a bigger textile centre than ever before, perhaps a logical corollary to the gradual democratization of a traditionally exclusive product, and the lowering of production values and standards over a broader production base. We must celebrate it as a contemporary industry that allows a lot of people to participate and survive in a certain economic environment, while affording a lot more people the pleasure of indulging in the Banarasi. But we must separate it from our appreciation and understanding of the historical art of Banaras silk,” says Jain.

Will this be the same acceptance that will take place in West Africa? That the retail trade will benefit, that aspiring new consumers will enjoy what was hitherto out of reach? That the “original” fabrics will retain their place at the top of the value chain?

“In a crafts pyramid, the peak should be kept alive instead of just sustaining the base by making it market- and volume-oriented,”

Or, as the Indian story asks, can the African fashion industry leverage this democratization to spur economic and social development in underserved and lesser known segments? Could this trend actually benefit the original indigenous textile handicrafts of the Sahel and the west African nations? Will they re-emerge in prominence, and value, once again?

We’re starting a new series on the blog to explore these questions and more, led by our West African partner Yacine Bio-Tchane, of Cotonou, Benin. You will find them filed under the AfDB inspired category of Fashionomics and the tag fashionomics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.