The Curious History of “Tribal” Prints
How the Dutch peddle Indonesian-inspired designs to West Africa.
In response to the prevalence of these Chinese imitations, Vlisco recently changed its marketing plan. Its new strategy is to brand itself as a fashion house, releasing 20 to 30 designs every few months. The logic of this strategy, in part, is that the Chinese imitations usually take about two to three months to come to market, so Vlisco can stay ahead of them with fresh patterns. Vlisco has also launched a line of wax-fabric-covered accessories. Sylvanus suspects that West African consumers will eventually embrace these (relatively) new Chinese wax cloths in some form. Already there are Chinese designers who have been collaborating on designs with local women in Togo—replicating, in fact, the same process that helped companies like Vlisco come up with such popular patterns.
Which means the Dutch company that peddles Indonesian-inspired designs to West Africa may be edged out by the Chinese—and in search of a new market. But if Vlisco’s branding efforts succeed—if the world begins to perceive these designs as belonging to a major European manufacturer and not an African cottage industry—will the fashion world remain interested in this hybrid fabric? That’s Vlisco’s catch-22.
Correction, March 2, 2012: This article incorrectly stated that Marni had designed a collection for Target. In fact, Marni designed a collection for H&M. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Julia Felsenthal is an assistant at Slate.