The spirit of Africa


Wax printing is on the move – from a symbol of self-confidence for a continent to a high-impact fashion trend, writes CATHY O’CLERY

THE ANCIENT TECHNIQUE of wax-printing, originally from Asia, developed in Europe and synonymous with Africa, is asserting itself in contemporary design. Look at the fabrics on this page and you will be forgiven if you think they are African in origin. After all, West African women have been wearing these exuberant wax print cotton cloths for over a century. The intensely coloured abstract designs originate, in fact, in Holland, where they are still manufactured in the most part by one company, Vlisco, which has been trading with Africa since 1846.

Inspired by hand-dyed batik from Indonesia, the Dutch developed machine printing methods in the 19th century and initially shipped their cloth, subsequently printed in strong industrial dyes, back to Asia. Stopping along the coast of Africa, the bright bales of cloth were spotted on the boats and, because vibrant colours complement black skin so well, the ensuing demand resulted in a commercial shift to Africa. Now found in every marketplace south of the Sahara, cheap imitations followed, mostly from China and Pakistan, but the quality of the Dutch cloth, (printed on both sides for elegant wear) is what makes it the high-end choice of Africa’s elite.

Textiles have always had a huge impact on African life. During the independence movement of the 1970s, it was the Ghanaian Ewe cloth – a patchwork of multicoloured stripes traditionally worn by men of importance – which became the emblem of a free continent. Adopted by many Afro-Americans, it represented the regal and majestic side of African culture. Since the post-colonial generation has come of age the wax print has been taken up by the young and trendy for its retro-pop appeal. Worked in with current fashion trends, the brave designs have become symbolic of the new self-confidence of a continent eager to embrace the modern world.

Gareth Cowden, creator of hip Joburg label Babatunde ( explains: “The prints and colours radiate Africa’s diversity and bright future. What was something traditional has moved to contemporary design, from street-savvy fashion to cool interiors. There has always been a romantic appeal about Africa and the wax print is today’s vessel for that appeal.”

In the whirlpool of global trading, wax prints have made their way back to Europe. Their abstract geometric quality and ability to work together is part of the attraction – a celebration of a contemporary rather than “ethnic” spirit.

Though most of us will fall short of wearing full outfits, these vibrant fabrics can be worn sparingly in one uplifting accessory, as with Babatunde’s cool trilbies. In the home, the secret is to use several prints for impact – piling a sofa or bed with varying cushions as with the sensational designs of London-based designer Eva Sonaike ( who supplies Selfridges and Liberty. Whether on you or in your home, wax prints work best contrasted against something dark to intensify the colour.