fashion

Uniwax: After a collaboration with Dior, the company is pursuing its international ambitions


For half a century, Uniwax has made its mark as one of the main
manufacturers of the famous wax print. In West Africa and more specifically
in Ivory Coast, this brand is among the leaders. In April 2019, Uniwax made
its debut in the luxury fashion world by collaborating with Dior. At the
cruise collection 2020 show in Marrakesh, the famous house presented its
ready-to-wear collection showcasing wax print fabrics with designs created
and fabrics produced by Uniwax in its factory in Ivory Coast.

To find out more, FashionUnited spoke with Jean-Louis Menudier, the CEO
of Uniwax, in a meeting at the company’s office in Yopougon, a suburb of
Abidjan in Ivory Coast.

Uniwax: After a collaboration with Dior, the company is pursuing its international ambitions

Photo : Jean-Louis Menudier, CEO Uniwax; Uniwax.

When and how were you contacted by Dior?

The connection was made thanks to anthropologist, Anne Grosfilley, who
published a study on the history of wax prints in Africa. We know her well
since she visited Uniwax at the end of the 90’s. She also lived a long time
in Togo, where she continued writing this book on wax prints (Wax & Co :
anthologie des tissus imprimés d’Afrique [Anthology of African printed
fabrics], NDLR) and this is where the story begins.

Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s Artistic Director, became interested in this
study and wanted to include wax prints in her creations. So Anne Grosfilley
told her that Uniwax would be the best place for producing quality wax
prints, firstly because we observe the traditional process of producing the
wax prints and secondly because we use African cotton, processed in Africa.
What is more, we are a very flexible company, so we would be able to
respond very quickly and easily to special requirements, like the one from
Dior.

How did the collaboration happen?

Things happened very fast. The Dior team came here for a meeting in
February 2019 and the collection was presented at the end of April that
same year. We created 42 designs in line with the brief and their very
detailed instructions. In particular, we worked on the Tarot cards and Jouy
fabrics which are the property of the house of Dior. We modified them to
make them into wax print fabrics. It was a great collaboration, a great
alliance between Europe and Africa.

Will you continue to collaborate with Dior?

Only time will tell. We have already carried out another project with
Dior since this first collaboration. We have created a personalised fabric
(pagne) for a famous Italian artist to wear during his summer concert
tour.

Do you have other collaborations like this?

We have had other collaborations with international brands but not on
this scale. We have collaborated with Eastpak on two collections of
rucksacks for instance.

How does Uniwax respond to competition and counterfeiting?

To deal with the huge volume of copies originating mainly from China, we
act in a very simple manner. Our strategy is to design more quickly than
the copier can copy! We also take action on communication by directly
addressing our target audience. We regularly present new collections, we
have a fashion magazine to support these new designs etc… Our
communication emphasises the new rather than the traditional side and that
works well. The proof is that in the last five years, demand has exceeded
supply.

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This strong demand can also be explained by the fact that wax prints
have been given heavy media coverage in recent years. Do you sense this
with your clientele?

Obviously we participate in this media coverage as well via our own
fashion magazines. At one point, we targeted young people in our
communication so as to make them aware of this new product made in Africa.
We wanted to show that wax prints can be worn every day and by young
people. Up to that point, the major designers used only skinny professional
models for their shows, for photoshoots etc… We chose to photograph
ordinary people, ordinary men and women. We started this strategy in 2008
and over the years we have seen the first young people going out, even to
nightclubs, in wax print outfits. The trend then grew and I believe that we
contributed to it.

Don’t you think it will go out of fashion at some point?

No, it will last since the image and the values associated with this
trend are only getting stronger over time. We are moving increasingly
towards fabrics made entirely by us, with African cotton, soon to be
entirely spun and woven in Africa. Today we are at 35 percent and in two or
three years we envisage reaching one hundred percent. I think that all the
values associated with the brand will contribute to reinforcing this image
among consumers.

In what way is Uniwax operating eco-responsibly?

We have started installing a biomass boiler to produce our steam, which
is the main energy source used in the industrial process. We use no fuel
oil, little gas etc. but mainly biomass and we are pioneers in this regard.
The second phase of our commitment will consist of recycling 95 percent of
the water used in our processes and the remaining five percent will be
totally offset. Lastly, we envisage fitting solar panels on all the roofs
of the Uniwax factory so as to generate our daily electrical energy. We are
fully committed to an ecological and eco-responsible approach.

Uniwax: After a collaboration with Dior, the company is pursuing its international ambitions

Photo: Uniwax; FashionUnited.

You recently launched your sales website. How is it going?

We launched it in March 2019 and we are very much at the start of this
adventure. We did not want to take the risk of launching the website both
at an international level and at the sub-region level. We concentrated
entirely on Abidjan. Of course, the website is available in French and
English but delivery occurs at collection points and only in our shops in
Abidjan. For the moment, our made to order fabrics are the only product
available for sale on our website. Customers choose from a collection of
designs, they choose the colours and they can further personalise their
orders by adding to them up to five different high-definition photos. The
fabric, which is at least 180 cm, is available five days later.

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We tested this for over ten months and we intend to develop our product
range very quickly. We are in the process of finalising the extension to
our website to make it available internationally with delivery all over the
world. Keep in mind that in Africa it is extremely difficult to make
door-to-door deliveries as is done in Europe. We are seeing start-ups that
are trying to establish themselves in this market but for the moment I do
not think that this is working very well. As soon as this service is
available, we will make use of it.

How big is online turnover currently?

Turnover remains confidential for the moment. It is not very high yet.
We will be expanding the sale of made to order fabrics very quickly and
adding other products. The next goal is to offer more payment methods so as
to improve this range of services.

Uniwax: After a collaboration with Dior, the company is pursuing its international ambitions

Screen shot Uniwax.

Wax prints have recently been the victim of sharp criticism on social
networks. People object to wax prints for not being African. How do you
respond to these attacks?

I’ve seen numerous attacks… If one had to define wax prints today, I
think it must first be remembered that they are of Indonesian origin, like
batik, and they’ve never claimed an African origin. They are originally a
hand-made product and they are still being made in the same way in
Indonesia these days. The first company to industrialise the production of
wax fabrics was Vlisco in the Netherlands. This brand continues to be a
producer of wax prints of the highest quality to this day.

When I read these comments, especially those attacking Europeans and in
particular the Dutch, I find them ridiculous. To talk about wax prints, you
also have to look at the commercial aspect. In fact, it’s important to keep
in mind that wax prints have, since the very start, been bought and used by
Africans. Then they became a product sold by African women on the continent
and today, after being completely accepted in Africa, they are in the
process of becoming a global product although of Indonesian origin.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Dutch wax prints do not represent
even one percent of the market for African print. Today the market in
Africa is dominated by the Chinese industrial giants which account for over
90 percent of the production of African prints.

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So are the critics of wax prints attacking the wrong industry?

I don’t really understand what these critics are trying to achieve by
their attacks. I don’t see how wax prints upset the production of bogolans,
traditional woven pagnes etc. Everyone is entitled to their place in the
market and it’s up to designers to promote products that they like to work
with, that they like transforming to make clothing or decoration etc. with
them.

What are your goals for this year, 2020?

We are going to try to get even more in tune with demand and consumers’
expectations. We are going to continue investing in enlarging our
production capacity and improving the quality of our products by installing
the very latest technology. We also want to diversify our product range and
markets and to develop our e-business this year.

How did you come to be at Uniwax?

Before becoming an Ivorian by adoption, I was originally French. I was
born in the Vosges and after studying fabrics, which are well developed in
Epinal in my region of birth, I was a Fabrics Technical Consultant in Yemen
for a year and a half. Then I obtained a private contract in Yemen for the
preparation of the installation of an underwear factory. I returned to
France for two years, where I worked as the Technical Director for a small
company in Alsace, then as the principal lecturer of a fabrics college in
the Lyon region and I went off to Africa in 1983, where I worked for seven
years in Zaire, then in Senegal for three years and lastly I came to
Uniwax, which I have been managing for 26 years.

Five facts about Uniwax:

  • Uniwax was founded in 1967 and started
    operations in January 1970. In 2020 the company celebrated 50 years in
    business.
  • Uniwax was founded by Vlisco and Unilever which owned 15 and 85 percent
    of its capital respectively.
  • Uniwax has been the partner of the Miss Côte d’Ivoire competition since
    the end of the 90’s.
  • The company is quoted on the stock exchange, the BRVM in Abidjan.
  • In 2018, Uniwax achieved a turnover of 40 billion CFA Francs or over 61
    million Euros.

Five facts about Vlisco:

  • Vlisco was founded in 1846. The company
    celebrated its 170th anniversary in 2016.
  • Since its foundation, Vlisco’s registered office and factory have been
    located in Helmond in the Netherlands.
  • The company created the Vlisco, Woodin, Uniwax and GTP brands.
  • 95 percent of Vlisco’s clientele are located on the African continent
    and mainly in West and Central Africa.
  • In 2010 Vlisco was bought by British investment company Actis for 118
    million Euros.

This article was previously published on FashionUnited
France

Photo : Facebook Uniwax



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