La Famille is an archetypal Vlisco design—persistently popular since its inception in 1952—with dazzling colours, an eye-catching rhythmic pattern, and a luxurious feel. The textile represents the traditional family: mother (hen), father (rooster head), children (chicks), and future children (eggs). The irony of this “happy family” is depicted in the repeated motif of the rooster head—the absent body of the father being a metaphor for the husband’s failure to satisfy his wife, and she is, in return, unfaithful to him.
Many Vlisco graphics narrate moral tales or depict ceremonial customs while others reference contemporary pop-culture motifs such as USB cords and common objects like high heels and envelopes. There are even commemorative cloths featuring portraits of presidents and British royalty. Some prints are purely ornamental, leaning towards the botanical, geometric, and abstract, but all are consistently vibrant with electric shapes and piercing colour combinations.
The story of Vlisco and the origin of the véritable wax hollandais (French for “real Dutch wax”) are rooted in a diverse chain of cultural influences and colonial meetings. Vlisco was founded in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 1846 by Dutch merchant Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen. He first encountered batik textiles in the Dutch colony of Indonesia and saw great potential in their unique printed quality. Batik is a form of wax-resist printing in which hot wax is applied to areas of a cloth before dyeing to resist colour. Through the process of repeated dyeing, the wax begins to crack, resulting in a layered craquelé effect. Vlissingen brought this technique to the Netherlands and produced batik fabrics that were sold back to the Indonesian market. Vlisco copied and adapted indigenous colours and motifs, which were strongly related to status and occasion, in response to market preferences.
After sales decreased in Indonesia, Vlisco moved its business to West Africa in the late 19th century. After all, Dutch merchants had been trading fabrics in West Africa successfully for two hundred years. However, competition from other distributors forced Vlisco to change its direction: colours became brighter and regional patterns were incorporated into the designs. Local merchants sold Vlisco prints to well-off African women, who then sewed the material into garments. The company prospered in West Africa and by the 1950s, the fabrics were so deeply integrated into African society that they became a symbol of African identity—despite the inherent paradox.
Today, cheaper knock-offs have flooded the African market and Vlisco has had to develop new strategies to maintain its position as the leading textile distributor. Vlisco continues to offer a collection of designs that have proved their popularity over time—attending to their loyal customers—while new prints, made with collaborating artists, are introduced every three months. Nonetheless, the Vlisco customer can distinguish the original from its counterfeit, and thus the véritable wax hollandais remains at the heart of many African women who have adorned themselves in Vlisco for generations. Although this particular Dutch-African hybrid emerged from a cultural crossbreeding, it remains central to African identity and pride. The woman who now wears Vlisco is modern and cosmopolitan and has, of course, great fashion sense.
Harmen Liemburg is an Amsterdam-based graphic designer, printmaker, and journalist.
Images: © Vlisco Netherlands B.V.