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Putting the ‘African’ back in West African wax print fabrics

Frank Hersey, FMM | A range of colourful textiles, known as pagnes, on display in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan for 'National Pagne Day'.

The European monopoly on wax print textiles in Central and West African markets is being undermined by Chinese companies. But now designers in Ivory Coast are embracing traditional patterns in a bid to reclaim their past.

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The colourful printed fabrics synonymous with West and Central Africa are falling out of favour as the textiles market sees some of its biggest changes since European firms introduced wax-block printing 150 years ago. As the leading European brands thwart Chinese competition, persistent high prices and a reappraisal of identity mean people in Ivory Coast are turning to traditional fabrics instead.

Despite being mass-produced, the wax-printed fabrics made by Anglo-Dutch manufacture Vlisco Group cost more per yard than fabrics handmade by Ivory Coast’s weavers. Discontent over the high prices has been exacerbated by accusations that the Vlisco Group engages in monopolistic marketplace abuses.

The country’s association of small traders, FENACCI, claims the company ruthlessly enforces anti-counterfeit measures to keep prices high and prevents competition from Chinese competitors. The high prices charged for ‘African fabrics’ by foreign companies are part of the argument for promoting traditional craft, along with job creation and heritage protection.

First the colonisers, then the Chinese

The bold, bright fabrics associated with West and Central Africa, known as pagne, are in fact something of a newcomer to the region. Based on Indonesian batik techniques, their mass production was perfected by the Dutch and British in the colonial era. From the 1870s, the fabrics were sold on African markets via local female distributors, who also passed back vital market and design information.

A century later, Chinese manufacturers arrived on the scene, mimicking the European pagnes.

“In those days it was very easy to see a fake because they hadn't mastered the very unique method of wax printing,” Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian documentary maker, told FRANCE 24. “But with time, they've become better and mastered the technology. It's very hard now to see the difference between a Chinese copy and the original Dutch wax or English wax.”

Chinese competition, initially in the form of counterfeits, but now also designs in their own right, has proven problematic for Vlisco Group. It has fought back with training for customs officials, new printing techniques, market research and marketing.

Tight grip

The streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, are adorned with advertising for the latest designs from Uniwax. All the major brands – Uniwax, Vlisco, Woodin and GTP – belong to the same company, Netherlands-based Vlisco Group, which was acquired by UK private equity firm Actis for $151 million in 2010. Its brands are made in the Netherlands (Vlisco), Ivory Coast (Uniwax) and Ghana (Woodin and GTP).

A billboard in Ivory Coast's Abidjan for one of several brands owned by Anglo-Dutch group Vlisco.
A billboard in Ivory Coast's Abidjan for one of several brands owned by Anglo-Dutch group Vlisco. Frank Hersey, FMM

“Vlisco is constantly sending their marketing team to Africa and they're sitting down with women in markets, they're asking questions,” says Obinyan. “They're even sending their designers there to gain inspiration”.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 on the sidelines of a traditional weaving demonstration on National Pagne Day, Chantal Guiraud, president of FITT, the Ivorian Federation of Traditional Textiles, noted that, “When you compare [traditional pagnes] to wax fabrics by Uniwax and Vlisco – those are pagnes that might be made in Africa, but they’re not African. In reality, it’s not us here on the ground doing the designs. They might have the patterns of traditional pagnes, but those patterns typically belong to the regions of Ivory Coast.”

Guiraud is pushing for more craftspeople to register their designs amid complaints that traditional designs have not only been registered by European brands, but also copied by Chinese manufacturers.

“All the Ivory Coast designs are intellectual property, but what I don’t understand is, how the copying countries can go on copying. Why does nobody do anything?” she asks.

Typical prices for a complete pagne range from around 30,000 CFA francs (46 euros) at Woodin to 45,000 CFA francs (€67) at Vlisco. High quality Chinese wax-print brands such as Hi Target retail for around 6-8,000 CFA francs (€9-12). Hand spun, handwoven traditional pagne cost around 30,000 CFA francs for the equivalent length, according to Guiraud, although silk costs 200,000 CFA francs (€305).

Farikou Soumahoro, president of the FENACCI small traders’ federation, claims these prices are out of reach for families “and to sort this situation out, traders have banded together and travelled to manufacturers abroad, in Asia, to be specific, to have pagnes made at a lower cost for the benefit of the people.”

Soumahoro believes shopkeepers are being unfairly punished for selling counterfeits.

“We’re importing these pagnes, paying the appropriate customs dues to clear customs and getting the goods to our shops," he says. "Then this company comes along and removes the pagnes with I don’t know what as a warrant saying that the items are counterfeits.”

Pagnes on sale in a street of Abidjan.
Pagnes on sale in a street of Abidjan. Franck Hersey, FMM

Shopkeepers we spoke to at a fabric market in Abidjan described how such raids happen.

“The pagnes come through the port and head to Adjamé to the wholesalers then distributors. But there’s never any problems at that level, just with us small traders,” one trader, who did not want to be identified, told FRANCE 24.

“Uniwax representatives come in plainclothes and look around at our pagnes then go off. They come back with the police and take what they want […] They take anything they say is counterfeit, but also any Chinese brands like Hi Target. There’s nothing we can do as they’re with the police,” said another. Such raids happen roughly every six months, he said. The story doesn’t end there. “The Uniwax reps then resell all the pagnes they’ve seized back onto the markets,” he claimed.

Uniwax declined to be interviewed or comment.

Somouhoro said in early May that his members had recently reported the seizure of 2,600 full pagnes in San Pedro, Port Pouet and Man and said he would seek the intervention of Ivorian Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as a negotiator.

FENACCI’s previous legal action against Uniwax, the most prominent part of the Vlisco Group in Ivory Coast, has failed.

Traditional comeback

Events such as the weeklong National Pagne Day aim to promote traditional, locally produced textiles, sidestepping the issues of cost and identity.

“Traditional fabrics are being used more in African fashion and that’s what we’re trying to do with the Pagne Day,” says Guiraud, who is grateful for the promotional efforts of the Ministry of Culture.

Weaving loom in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast
Weaving loom in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast FMM/ Franck Hersey

Massiamy Ouattara, a costume maker and ambassador of Ivorian crafts, has observed the changes.

“Before, people wore a lot of wax print, and they still do, but you see people wearing traditional pagne much more than 30 or 40 years ago,” she explains. “Over the last 20 years it’s come into its own […] and is now being used in skirts, trousers, jackets and even hats.”

Ouattara’s own label was recognised by UNESCO for West African craftsmanship, and she hopes more financial backing will help craftspeople take their products to international markets.

“There’s a great future for these fabrics because Ivory Coast produces cotton,” she says. “Why don’t we be the creators who take the cotton produced by these women and turn it into pagne?”

Obinyan, the documentary maker, agrees with the importance of identity: "We need to invest back into our own indigenous textiles and we need to take control of that – because we're never really going to fully own wax print because it was never fully ours to begin with.”

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