The Evolution and Future of the African Print

| September 9, 2012

If you are of West African heritage, there is no doubt that you have an item of wax print specially tailored and sewn hanging in your wardrobe. In Ghana the traditional outfit is known as “kaba and slit” (top and long skirt) and depending on the type of print, is worn typically to special events, although sometimes the more common prints are worn as every day outfits.

In Ghana it is known as Ntuma, in Nigeria as Ankara, and various other names in other countries, but all of them share the characteristics of bright colours and geometric prints. Presently, they are undergoing a renaissance as many West African designers use Dutch Wax Print in their collections. Because of this, and the fact that many African women in the Diaspora wear it, the US/UK population has started to take note and it has started to be utilised in a few mainstream fashion brand collections (Burberry 2012, ASOS Africa). But where did wax print originate from, how did it become so popular and how can we use its popularity to develop African fashion, African manufacturing and overall, the African economy?

It may surprise you to learn that batik cloth prints are actually Indonesian in origin. They were (and are broadly still) made with a particular technique of dipping a cloth in wax, then dyeing over that wax cloth to make a particular pattern. The Dutch, who had conquered parts of West Africa, and were intent on capturing Indonesia, saw these cloths and how popular they were, and looked for ways to cheaply mass produce the cloths. They achieved this by applying resin instead of the wax plus dye. However, those cloths were of a perceived lower quality.  They had a “crackle” effect-small circles and lines of faded colour started to appear and so they were offloaded to West Africa.

In Africa, they gained a new appreciation-Dutch Wax began to acquire a reputation for prestige and status, and soon they were in high demand. The brighter the colours and more elaborate the geometric shapes, the more they were appreciated. They were often included as a bride’s dowry price in traditional marriages. Nowadays, several Dutch Wax manufacturers play on this status. Vlisco, the sole Dutch Wax Manufacturer based in Holland, and others like ABC Wax (UK) and Woodin (West Africa) are just a few examples.

Of course, now Dutch Wax is seen as central to African fashion renaissance, with several African labels such as Jewel by Lisa and Duro Olowu, (which are worn regularly by celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Solange Knowles), heavily featuring Dutch Wax in their collections. Gwen Stefani has also featured Wax Print in a few collections of her line, L.A.M.B. Many young women are instructing seamstresses to sew Western clothing with the Wax Print Cloths into pencil skirts and playsuits. But is this popularity proving profitable for Africa?

Sadly it seems that it is not. In Ghana, the number of Wax Print manufacturers have shrunk from four to only one in the past ten years, and that company, Printex, reports that it is suffering competition from “counterfeit” cheaper wax cloths being made in China and sold for roughly half the price of Printex-produced Wax Cloths. The number of employees working in wax print textile production has also shrunk from 25,000 to 7,000 within 20 years. The brands with premium, Vlisco and ABC Wax, are usually owned and operated not by Africans, but by Europeans. We must take urgent steps to protect the industry of one of our most enduring exports, otherwise the livelihoods of many African women i.e. seamstresses, fashion designers, traders and factory workers, may be seriously at risk. There steps remain to be seen.

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Chantal Korsah

Chantal Korsah is a medical student, published poet, fashion line CEO, entrepreneur and freelance writer at various African online and print media, based in London. She enjoys writing on topics such as African entertainment, African health, African fashion and beauty, and African presence and events in the diaspora.

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