The Dutch fabrics manufacturing company Vlisco–the image is from the company’s new line “Delicate Shades“–says its “strategy is aimed at enabling well-to-do African women to experience the brand in all her facets … Developments take place at neck-breaking speed in Africa and Vlisco aspires to inspire and gain the loyalty of younger generations as well. Innovation is therefore an essential element within the company.”

Of course, innovations in cloth making/print making has made the world go around but…mass-producing cloth in Europe, and selling it to “the colonies” is nothing new.
“Dutch” wax print was based on batik print techniques from the colonies in Indonesia and other parts of the Indian Ocean world, into which the Dutch East India company sent warships in order to take over trade. In the Netherlands, the batik techniques were simplified and adapted, using machinery, eliminating the finesse with which the original cloth was made. The result: cheap, mass produced stuff, which was eventually pushed on foreign markets. Although it is not known how exactly this mass-produced, patterned cloth arrived in Africa, it’s commonly thought African soldiers recruited by the Dutch (known as the ‘Belanda Hitam’, or ‘Black Dutchmen’) and stationed in the East Indies returned to West Africa in the nineteenth century bringing along batik fabrics…and a new clientele was born. And because the mass produced material were not popular in Indonesia, the Dutch may have had to attempt to find new markets.

What is now commonly called “African fabric” goes by a multitude of names: Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais. This is not to say that Africa never invented anything – but to illustrate that in Africa, as in any place where identity, objects, and concepts of taste and beauty are influenced by trade, was (and remains) in flux. In other words, there is no such thing as an “essential” African look or way of being. In fact, Yinka Shonibare, the Nigerian-British contemporary artist, has famously used this signature cloth, traditionally associated with the imagery that “Africa” conjures up, to fashion dresses fit for European madams of the Victorian Era (see his “Gay Victorians”): it’s a sly, surreal critique of the residual colonial views imprinted in all our heads.

That new innovations in print making is bringing finer cloth and designs to West Africa is wonderful. And it’s sweet that a number of major design houses, including Michael Kors, Burberry and Oscar de la Renta used African prints and motifs in 2011. But as Dolapo Shobanjo, owner of the online boutique, MyAsho.com, which sells clothes by African designers said in a recent interview with NPR: “I grew up in Nigeria and this is something that I’ve seen before. I’ve seen people use African fabrics and I’ve seen…designers be creative with the fabric. So it’s quite interesting to have seen the Western world kind of embrace this new fad and have editors kind of…market it as, you know, fresh and new and amazing.”

Listen to the interview on Tell me More on NPR here.