A few years ago Vlisco, one of the world’s biggest wax print manufacturers, made me a dress for a story in Elle magazine. At the time the Dutch company was trying to solidify its presence in the SA market and had opened standalone stores in several malls. The dress was beautiful in a blue and white wax print, one of the 350 000 original textiles Vlisco had designed since 1846 for sale primarily in the Central and West African markets.
Some 170 years later this fabric is considered fully African and deeply significant with special names and meanings for the cultures of Central and West Africa. The technique to make the wax fabric is derived from Indonesian batik. So, Vlisco calls itself a “multicultural melting pot of beauty and industrial craftmanship”. Today there is no faster or more immediate visual shorthand for African fashion than these fabrics manufactured in Helmond, in the Netherlands.
I was reminded of the experience last week because Dior had just shown in Morocco with the Cruise 2020 collection heavily indebted to the cultural melting pot of wax print. For the show, the designer Maria Grazia Chiuri collaborated with a studio from the Ivory Coast to reinterpret 15 classic Dior prints on cotton grown, spun and printed in Africa.
The Uniwax studio based in Abidjan is a subsidiary of Vlisco, setting up an interesting opportunity to think about the flow of cultural information and how it plays out in fabric and ultimately in a garment. Several collaborators such as African-American artist Mickalene Thomas, Wales Bonner and the Cote Ivorian Pathe Ouedraogo (who had a hand in Madiba’s shirts) contributed looks to the collection.
It was a valiant effort to sidestep any arguments of cultural appropriation – a charge Dior faced last year with its collection inspired by Mexico’s female escaramuza riders. The argument is that large multinationals appropriate other people’s cultural artifacts and profit from them without passing on the benefits to the exploited culture.
This collaboration may point to a way forward. So that, instead of appropriation, a dialogue is established instead. Much like wax fabric itself. The result is a rather beautiful effort, albeit achingly familiar to a South African audience – long accustomed to the medium of wax fabric to tell our fashion stories via the via.