The African wax print fabric has recently witnessed a surge in popularity around the globe. High profile figures such as Beyonce and Michelle Obama have been seen rocking these colourful, bold outfits that are extremely popular in West Africa.
The wax print fabric, also known as Ankara in West Africa, has a fascinating history. The wax printing technique was developed hundreds of years ago in Java, Indonesia. When the Dutch, who ruled the territory in the nineteenth century, saw the technique, they were impressed and wanted to mechanize it. The idea was that mechanization would make production less strenuous and the fabric more affordable.
In 1846, Pieter Fentener Van Vlissingen founded Vlisco in Helmond, Netherlands, to produce the fabric in mass quantities. While this industrial fabric failed to capture the Indonesian market, it became an instant hit in West Africa and has remained so for more than a hundred years. Today Vlisco (and its subsidiaries – Uniwax, Ghana Textile Printing, Woodin) remain one of the main suppliers of the fabric.
What makes the wax print fabric so popular in Africa? The number one reason is that this fabric is a powerful means of self-expression. There is always a subtle message captured in the artwork on the fabric, and that message can be easily interpreted by others in society.
For instance, the fabric here shows okra leaves, which signify thrift and hard work. By wearing the fabric, someone says to others that he or she has worked hard and saved carefully to acquire this material.
Besides acting as a way of expressing personal sentiments, the wax fabric reflects social and political trends. In other words, the fabric is used to capture the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. In light of the covid-19 pandemic, for example, the Ghanaian Textile Printing (GTP, owned by Vlisco) produced the fabric shown below.
While the vast majority of wax print fabric consumers remain in West and Central Africa, people in the diaspora – and not just those of African descent– are finding appeal in the boldness and expressiveness of this fabric and design. For once, it is exciting to see fashion trends in the continent being adopted on the most elite levels around the world.
Five years ago, sometime before it became a trendy fabric, I landed in Dubai wearing an Ankara print top that had been handmade in Niger, the country I grew up in. The sight of a banker (and a white one at that) wearing African prints surprised many. It was something people had never seen in Dubai before. I decided to change this.
I founded Ashante to introduce this wonderful fabric in lifestyle designs that people would carry everywhere with them, hence experiencing a joyful and colorful modern image of my Africa. Five years later, Ashante Design is a leader in branding collaterals and communication supports, helping dozens of businesses celebrate their brands through the creative designs of our artistic director. We use the fabric directly from sources in the West African markets of Niamey and Lagos. We digitize and reprint for you the designs that best express your message, and we also go plain if it fits better your message. You can discover all these different options by visiting our website.