Vlisco Group, a multimillion dollar African fashion brand spanning four subsidiaries (Vlisco Netherlands B.V., Woodin, Uniwax and GTP) has for the past century and a half sold its colorful fabrics in West and Central Africa. Often referred to as “Wax Hollandais” or “Real Dutch Wax,” its authentic designs have come to symbolize authentic African sophistication and style in the modern age. The relationship between Vlisco and the continent dates back to as far back as 1846 when its signature fabrics, made using a 21 stage process involving wax based batik techniques quickly found popularity in Africa. According to the company’s Creative Director, Roger Gerards, the company was born more than 160 years ago when a [Dutch] family bought a cotton printer and started to make products for Indonesia. From 1900 on, these products were also sold in West Africa after they gained traction locally. The fabrics changed slowly from their very Indonesian batik styles to their vibrant African textures and imagery which borrows inspiration from traditional African history and folklore. Over 800 people make the Vlisco textiles and according to Gerards, Vlisco to this day is the only company in the world that still works with the wax batik technique. Overall, Vlisco employs over 2,100 people, of which 1,500 people are based in West Africa.
In many major African cities, Vlisco designs and collections are heralded as vanguards of the Afropolitan revolution sweeping across the continent. Yet, it would shock many Africans to know that the company is for the most part unknown in Europe and even in its home country of the Netherlands. “There’s a huge contradiction between how the brand is perceived in West Africa and how it’s perceived [in Europe],” said Gerards. “[But] I don’t mind that much that people don’t know us here. There are 400 million people living in West and Central Africa and we are world famous there. You see people wearing us everywhere.” “In West Africa we’re more than just design; we’re also [part of the] culture,” said Gerards. “People claim and adopt our products. When we have a fashion show in a city such as Lagos it’s a huge event. What’s beautiful about the Vlisco brand is that in West Africa we’re more than just design; we’re also [part of the] culture.”
In September 2010, after more than a century of successful operations on the continent, emerging markets private equity firm, Actis capital announced a US$151 million buy out of 100% of the company. For Actis, the buyout offered a unique opportunity for it to invest in a brand oriented company targeting the growing African consumer class. The company had a turnover of about €225 million in 2011, a 20% increase from the previous year and almost €300 million last year. Actis plans to help the brand double its business by 2015.
According to Vlisco’s C.E.O, Hans Ouwendijk, Actis typically only invests in emerging markets and so its executives in foreign offices were initially hesitant to move forward. “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.”
In the next four to five years, the company hopes to double or treble the number of stores it has from the 30 its has today on the continent. This compliments Actis’ Africa Real Estate team’s strategy of rapidly expanding the continent’s mall infrastructure footprint from The Palm’s Mall in Lekki, Lagos to Accra Mall, Ghana.
Earlier this year, Vlisco launched the Fashion Dream Fund contest, as part of the Vlisco Women’s month campaign to give young African fashion designers from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Congo DR and Ivory Coast the opportunity to show case their work and designs.
In the future, the company aims to continue to improve the efficiency of its existing operations in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It also hopes to target new markets such as Senegal, Mali and several high-growth countries surrounding Nigeria as well as heavily target the African Diaspora and Western audiences. The company also hopes to add new products to its catalogue such as bags and scarves to build awareness of its brand outside Africa.
“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.”