LONDON, United Kingdom — Near sellers of dried salt fish, start-up restaurants staffed by earthy yuppies and an eatery called Fish, Wings and Tings, at the heart of Granville Arcade in Brixton, a London neighbourhood known for its African and Caribbean populations, is a shop called African Queen Fabrics.
Neat stacks of brightly coloured African "wax" print fabrics fill the shelves of the airy space, where the majority of the customers are part of the West and Central African diaspora who buy material for tailors to make up into elaborate outfits for church on Sunday, gifts for relatives, or, simply to hoard, as British designer Ozwald Boateng’s Ghanaian mother and her friends did.
“Every Ghanaian woman of my mother’s generation collected hundreds of these fabrics,” said Boateng. “My mother literally had a room packed with these cloths. When I was 16, I decided I wanted to experiment and made an outfit from them. She came back, saw that I had cut into the cloth, and she lost her mind.”
The most highly prized African wax prints are made by a company called Vlisco. Indeed, such is the value of Vlisco to a wide spectrum of African women that the fabric maker has grown into a successful global brand with a turnover that is expected to approach €300 million (about $414 million) this year.
Over 90 percent of Vlisco’s sales come from the African continent itself, where, at present, it is one of the only international fashion and apparel brands with a significant presence. You see, Vlisco is a Dutch company.
In 1846, Dutch entrepreneur Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen mechanised the production of Indonesian batik cloth and, in doing so, created the aesthetic that we now identify as “African print.” In the 19th century, Batik print fabric was a very popular trading good for ships stopping in West Africa and, after initially launching his product in Holland, Vlissingen started selling in Africa in response to high demand. Since then, the popularity of its printed fabrics has spread to such an extent that Vlisco is now an authentic part of the cultural fabric of West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Vlisco’s traction in Africa, where the fashion system is nothing like that in Western Europe or the US, drew attention from London-based private equity firm Actis Capital, which bought the company in 2010.
Actis, which was fully owned by the British government until 2003, but has since been privatised, only invests in developing markets, and for that reason, according to Vlisco CEO Hans Ouwendijk, was initially sceptical about the Dutch company. “But then the Actis team in Lagos said, ‘You must be out of your minds, because if there’s one company that has a big impact in Africa, that’s Vlisco,”’ recounted Ouwendijk.
Vlisco’s top-of-the-line product is still made in Helmond, in Holland, where the company is headquartered, and sells for around €9 per metre. The firm also operates three smaller “mid-price” brands — GTP, Uniwax and Woodin — all designed and made in Africa and sold for €6 per metre. (By contrast, Chinese-made wax print fabric sells for €2 to €3 per metre).
Following the acquisition, Actis set aggressive growth targets: doubling Vlisco's size in five years, a goal that the company is “well on track” to achieving, said Ouwendijk, who was brought in by Actis. “In 2009, our total turnover was €170 million, and this year 2013, we will get very close to €300 million.”
To understand why one of the most successful clothing brands in Africa is a fabric manufacturer, one must first get to grips with how fashion works on the continent. One key factor, Ouwendijk explained, is cost of labour: “If you would get a shirt made up in London, you would pay something for the fabric, but the majority [of the cost] would be the labour. But in Africa, the fabric is the most important cost and making up a garment is less expensive, so everybody who has a bit of money has their own tailor.” What this means is that the finished product is the work of the individual who buys the fabric and his or her tailor.
The very concept of trends, manufactured by fashion brands to push new products in the West, does not really exist in Africa. Instead, there is a constant push for individuality, says Vlisco marketing director Joan Drost: “In the African system there is the triangle of the material, the consumer and the tailor — and in that setting you are facilitating, nothing is sold directly. The whole social system as we have structured it in the West, is through trends, but they don't have that in Africa because they have their tribal system, so they don’t have to belong to the group, because that’s already there. That gives them the freedom to stand out from the crowd, there is no second person ever wearing a garment the same as another person. They do something new with everything we produce.”
Sales channels are an entirely different story as well. Vlisco’s fabrics are largely sold in open-air markets. The company sells to wholesalers, who then resell the fabric to market traders. “95 percent of all fabric purchasing is done in open markets,” said Ouwendijk. “Formal retail, like bricks and mortar, is not very well developed yet, but as we have 160 years on the continent, we have a first mover advantage [in retail]. There are some [Western] companies that have some franchise partnerships [in Africa], but they are for individual stores. They are not a rolled-out like we are. Mango have three or four stores, but they are franchises and franchise is a concept that has not developed well in Africa.”
“Most of the people who work in our company in Africa are local, so we have the first knowledge on what are the best locations in towns, best towns, and the best countries to operate in and in the next few years we will expand the stores and the retail operation quite a lot,” continued Ouwendijk. “I think today we have 30 [stores] and I wouldn’t be surprised if we double or treble that in the next 4 to 5 years.”
Other than “to work bloody hard,” according to Ouwendijk, Vlisco’s strategy for growth is threefold. First, the company aims to improve the efficiency of their existing operations in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo by integrating their sales teams across countries.
Secondly, Vlisco is targeting new markets such as Senegal, Mali and several high-growth countries surrounding Nigeria. Growth in the USA, amongst both the African diaspora and “white Americans,” has been promising, as well, and is an area of focus.
And lastly, Vlisco is in the process of adding new products to its offering, such as the recent collection of bags and scarves the company presented at Milan Fashion Week. “That is something we are going to roll out outside Africa — not necessarily as a major growth vehicle, but to build awareness of our brands,” said Ouwendijk.
In terms of marketing, Vlisco’s most important means of communicating with its audience in Africa is simple: billboards. But blogger outreach and social media are becoming increasingly important. Though Vlisco is not a ready-to-wear company, it does release collections four times a year, which prompt a surge of online activity as bloggers get hold of the fabric, and start creating outfits. Drost described the situation: “Africa and West Africa are booming as far as new media is concerned. There are so many new people who can create new garments and they expose that on new media. Whenever there’s a new collection of our brands, the blogs are booming with new creations. Anything they see as new, they immediately translate into something they have not done before and that makes it so dynamic.”
Translating online activity into e-commerce sales remains a major challenge on the African continent, however, said Ouwendijk. “Logistics is one of the biggest problems in Africa — it is the most expensive continent in the world for transport. The roads are not there and air connections are limited, railways are hardly there.”
But despite the challenges, Vlisco’s deep knowledge and on-the-ground experience in Africa puts it in a very strong position to benefit from the continent’s on-going evolution from land of crisis to land of opportunity.
“Africa used to be known for poverty, for AIDS, for wars, for corruption and all of these negative things,” said Ouwendijk. “Nowadays, Africa is a known for its great opportunity, for its growth — out of the top ten fastest growing economies in the world, 7 are African, so Africa is on a journey that is extremely fast, expanding GDP on an annual basis by 10 percent. It is going to be an extremely interesting market.”