We have just left Makola Market, a huge market in the centre of Accra, where we spent the morning getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleys and discovering Vlisco’s striking Dutch Wax textiles. We are now driving towards the Osu district of the city. We are with Roger Gerards, Vlisco’s Europe-based Creative Director, who is taking us to meet Patrick Liversain, his Africa-based counterpart.
We pull up in front of a glass-fronted building on Oxford Street. “Here we are, Vlisco’s home ground,” Roger says as we get out of the car.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I ask. “It says Woodin above the entrance.”
“Patrick can explain,” Roger says as we go inside. We are immediately surrounded by lengths of colourful fabrics and ready-to-wear pieces of clothing hanging on racks.
“Welcome to the Woodin showroom,” a man says, walking up to us. “My name’s Patrick. I heard about your adventures at the market this morning. Did you see how Dutch Wax is sold, in lengths of six yards? From there the fabric is taken directly to a tailor to be transformed into a unique outfit.”
“It says Woodin above the door,” I say, pointing behind me, “what does that mean?”
“Vlisco is an Authentic Dutch Wax brand that has been around since the 1800s,” Patrick says. “But it’s also the parent of three African brands: Woodin, Uniwax and GTP. I’m the creative man behind Woodin, Uniwax and GTP.”
“Are your Woodin clothes still at the tailor?” Anouk asks, indicating his black shirt and trousers. Patrick laughs. “I’m so submerged in design and colours all day that I prefer to have a neutral wardrobe.”
He leads us to a table at the back of the showroom where we sit down. “I’ve lived in Africa for 40 years and feel more African than European these days,” he says. “Vlisco has both an African and a European side, which appeals to me. The company was founded in 1846 in the Netherlands, where the textiles are still designed and produced, but the brand really comes alive in West Africa. Now the world outside Africa is starting to understand that deep connection with the brand, and wanting to feel it too.”
“We spoke to a shopkeeper in the market about the names that are given to the fabrics once they arrive in Africa,” I say.
“The designers in the Netherlands have their own concepts and thoughts about their drawings before they go into production,” Roger says and shows us a swatch of different colours and prints. He points to one of them. “And sometimes names change. This one was originally called ‘leopard’ because of all the spots. We saw it later at a market in Nigeria and found out that it had been renamed ‘housegarden gravel’, after the little stones. The retailer said the design was like the stones you put around your house to warn you if anyone gets too close. Someone walking on your pebbles is like being hurt by a person close to you. It wasn’t the meaning the designer had intended at all, but it shows you the emotional ties that our retailers and consumers have with the brand.”
Patrick takes over: “The name and its meaning may be one reason why a woman chooses a fabric, but the pattern is also critical to the final garment she creates. Together with a tailor, she’ll decide on details like the position of a flower or the direction a bird is flying for maximum impact and individuality. This makes every piece of clothing unique.”
“There’s something special about Vlisco,” Roger continues, “it’s become a ‘love brand’. People here in Africa feel they own the brand. We’ve built our reputation on original design and quality, but the brand has transcended the product.”
“Many brands would envy that kind of emotional attachment, but I’m sure you’re not going to take your success for granted,” says Anouk. “What’s your next challenge?”
“Our end users see us as a fashion brand, and we’ve been re-enforcing that view for a few years by creating a new collection every season,” Roger says. “The difference with traditional fashion brands is that we create the design of the fabric and the end user create the model. That’s what I call ultimate customisation.”
“Counterfeiting is a problem for many high-end fashion brands. How will you tackle it?” I ask.
“I’ll show you,” Patrick says. He stands up and leads us to the shop floor where a mannequin is draped in a length of colourful fabric printed with specific geometrical patterns and objects.
“We regularly introduce new designs like this one. It’s part of the new spring collection. Copies can only reach the market a few months after its release. By that time we’re ready to launch our summer collection,” he says. “Launching new concepts and designs on a regular basis will generate continuous excitement around the brand and make it harder for anyone to copy the designs.”
“We’ve already talked about the emotional ties our consumers have with the brand, but the brand also has strong emotional ties with the African continent,” Roger says. “Vlisco is positioned as an Afro-European brand, but we want to expand our target group to global. A design house which is used in more than fabrics for clothes.”
“A brand extension,” I say, “interesting. What kind of products are you thinking of?”
“We have several options in mind,” Roger replies, “like fashion accessories or home decoration. That will take shape in the coming years. To be continued in the next edition of the CoolBrands book.”
“By the way, did I tell you about Ubuntu?” Roger asks. “It’s an African philosophy which for us means: I am what I am because of who we all are. It’s part of how we do business,” he continues without waiting for our answer. He tells us about the ‘together and exchange’ aspect of Ubuntu and the centre of excellence the company plans to open in Accra. “Our goal is to share our knowledge and expertise, and to support local entrepreneurs. But we are also quite aware that we are working in Africa, a continent with many social and economic needs. So apart from our work with young designers we also work with people who have less opportunity to enable them to make a living as a tailor, probably not- immediately- working with Vlisco fabrics. The bright ones will get there eventually and for the others being a tailor is an honorable profession in its own right. We strongly support that. And we plan to do more….”
“That sounds like a unique way of adding value for your West African partners and for setting yourself apart as a brand,” I say.
Roger nods. “It’s our purpose as a brand; to share ideas and create prosperity.”
“I can see why you want to position Vlisco as a design house,” Anouk says, browsing through the fabrics. “I could get very creative with these.”
I turn to Patrick. “I think you’re going to have to recommend a tailor to Anouk before we leave Accra.”
© 2012 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands
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