Last weekend I took my 4-year-old daughter Ruby to see the exhibit on Vlisco fabrics at the Museum Moderne Kunst Arnhem. The idea was to get some inspiration for a 'tribal' series from the masters of the genre.

'With Vlisco fabrics," writes Hedwig Saam, Director of the Museum Moderne Kunst Arnhem, "it's just like when I was pregnant with my children and the world suddenly seemed to be inhabited by pregnant women. Now that I'm familiar with Vlisco's fascinating past and its equally fascinating present, I find myself noticing the fabric everywhere."

 

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Vlisco pattern designed by Mari Althuizen, 1989

 

Acne, Balenciaga, Marni, Burberry, Dries van Noten, Adidas, Moroso, Junya Watanabe, Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani are some of the brands, designers and celebrities who have incorporated and worn it.

 

Gwen in African Print

 

The style and manufacturing process that defines the "Dutch Wax Print" was developed and perfected in a small town in the south of the Netherlands called Helmond, about a 20 minute drive from where I live. Other than being just outside Eindhoven, which is home to the Design Academy (arguably the world's best design school, especially for industrial design), there's nothing that particularly stands out about Helmond. Besides Vlisco, that is. This is where these fabrics have been designed and produced for over a hundred years.

 

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Installation showing Vlisco fabrics from the past hundred years

 

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One of my favorite Vlisco fabrics

 

The technique is rooted in the Indonesian batik. When Indonesia was a Dutch colony (at the end of the nineteenth century), the Dutch worked to develop a low-cost, machine-centered version of the expensive and labor-intensive Indonesian batik technique, thinking they'd sell it back to their colonists for a profit. I've heard conflicting reports about why the Dutch technique didn't catch on in Indonesia: either the Indonesians didn't like the look, or trade ties were severed when the colony was lost. Or a mixture of the two. Either way, the Dutch felt they'd worked too hard on the technology to give it up, so they set their sites on the West African market, where they adapted it slightly to match local tastes. And that was the start of a love affair that's lasted over a century ...

 

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A table displaying some of Vlisco's marketing materials

 

The most eye-opening thing I took away from the exhibit (thanks to a documentary called "Verbal Fabrics" by Annegriet Wietsma and Erik Willems) is how dependent the success of the brand, and the individual fabrics themselves, has been on the women in the African markets who assign stories to each print. The West African consumer is not interested in a Style or Item # (which is how Vlisco codes its designs), but can remember and relate to the vast complexities that characterize many of the narratives the market women develop. A completely abstract print becomes symbolic of the emotion you feel when you share something personal with someone and their reaction disappoints you.

 

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Vlisco often incorporates colonial-era ruffles in their own designs.

 

In other words, the West African consumer wants to communicate something about their political views or social status, personal situations, emotional state, etc. and uses their clothes to do so. The patterns can even communicate something that is too painful to talk about.

I don't think we do this the same way in the West. We communicate by wearing certain brands or wearing clothes with text or symbols. But we don't assign such deep meanings to patterns. And I kind of wish we did.

 

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Ruby + chocolate = love

 

The most eye-opening thing my companion, my 4-year-old daughter Ruby, took away from the exhibit, was the almost-larger-than-her-head-sized hot chocolate that she got at the museum café :)

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