When we talk about fabric in West Africa, there is no doubt that wax (also called ankara) is one of the first thing that comes to mind. Vlisco, the Dutch fashion textile brand, has been for long THE fabric par excellence bringing prestige and elegance to those who wear it. As 2016 marks the 170th anniversary of the brand, a celebratory campaign has been launched in several West African countries to share the history of the brand, re-print classic fabrics with a modern touch and weigh on the stakes for the future.
Speaking of stakes, competition from China has been the most damaging to Vlisco’s sales and image. Cheaper Chinese fabrics that happen to be look-alikes of Vlisco patterns have created two shifts in society:
- wax has become widely available to working class who can now frequently purchase fabric; and
- a rise of fashion labels creatively using wax for accessories, clothing, and shoe apparel.
Fashion labels using wax have flourished, at low scales, remaining more custom made than ready-to-wear. Yet whether they are designed with Vlisco or cheaper wax fabric, prices remain high. Let’s have a closer look:
Case 1: Woodin, part of the Vlisco group, boasts to be the “first African brand offering a contemporary and wholly African fashion range”. Vlisco owns two textile factories in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire yet ready-to-wear designs remain expensive, according to consumers. Prices range between $50 and $120. Interestingly enough, Woodin aspires to produce ready-to-wear collections accessible to all.
Case 2: newly launched clothing lines that produce small scale collections with (cheaper) wax prints. Designers work with tailors and seamstresses to produce their clothing/accessories items. Volumes produced depend on demand from customers, personal funds (access to funding) or requirements for expo/private sale designers are attending. Prices are also deemed expensive and closely mirror those of Woodin.
Admittedly, despite the current trend in wearing wax, African consumers still have a hard time purchasing ready-to-wear wax prints because of alternative options such as buying fabric and sewing preferred design directly with a tailor or seamstress or second hand clothes. However, mindsets are changing and demand is rising, especially from the middle class.
So, despite the democratization of fabric, both cases highlight important points:
- Cheaper fabric, even when produced locally, does not significantly reduce cost of clothing
- Labor costs remain expensive
- Economies of scale could be reached if demand rose significantly so mass market clothing in wax (or other locally made fabric) could be readily available
This begs the question: will manufacturing enable reducing the cost of ready to wear Ankara clothes and accessories in Africa?