Vlisco fabrics give Africa a global stage at Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit

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Vlisco fabrics fashioned into contemporary Central and West African style dresses at the "Creative Africa" exhibit.

I always assumed the vibrantly printed array of wrap skirts, maxi dresses, and kufis sold at African street fairs like last weekend's Odunde Festival were inspired by fabrics and silhouettes indigenous to the continent.

Turns out I was only half right.

The styles - iros (wraparound skirts), geles (head wraps), and bubas (loose-fitting blouses) - are native to central and west African countries.

But ankara, the striking wax-coated cotton fabric from which the clothing is often fashioned, traces its heritage to the Netherlands. And the most high-fashion kind - the Louis Vuitton of ankara - has been produced at the Holland-based textile company Vlisco for more than a century.

These Vlisco fabrics are the heart of the costume and textile portion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's expansive "Creative Africa" exhibit. (If you want to know about the textiles that are actually made in Africa, check out the "Threads of Tradition" exhibit upstairs in the Costume and Textiles Study Gallery.)

The goal of "Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage," on display until January 2017, is to celebrate the work of dressmakers in the diaspora through an examination of the textiles used.

"Vlisco" is particularly eye-opening because so many of the prints (and all of its knockoffs) identify not just apparel, but all manner of handbags, shoes, curtains, tablecloths, and throw pillows as African-inspired. The irony is that Vlisco fabric, recognized as the African luxury fabric, doesn't have its roots in Africa.

"You have to accept this idea that where something is made doesn't limit its identity," said Dilys Blum, the museum's senior curator of costume and textiles and mastermind of "Vlisco."

"These fabrics wouldn't be used the same way in Europe. The silhouette - the peplums, the flair - are all made for the African woman."

One thing that's clear from this exhibit: These African women have absolutely beautiful taste.

At the center of the Perelman building's 2,000-square-foot Joan Spain Gallery is a runway with 30 mannequins dressed in elaborate contemporary clothing made from mostly Vlisco fabrics.

What's particularly noticeable is the skill of the designers. Vlisco prints are produced horizontally at 36-inch widths, making them the perfect foundation for a traditional African wedding gown, but tougher from which to make a contemporary shirt dress.

Many of these looks - including a gorgeous 1950s-style top and full skirt featuring embroidered lace fans - are courtesy of Dutch designers who work for Vlisco. Only about seven dresses are actually made by seamstresses and tailors who live and work in Africa.

Side by side are two dresses using the same fabric in different colorways: a two-piece ensemble by Vlisco designer Inge van Lierop and a flamenco frock with flaring peplums that has a distinctly African twist by Araba Akompi, the creative director of a fashion house in Ghana.

"This is a good example of two uses of the same fabric," Blum said. "The result is two completely different pieces."

Also included is a blue-print dinner dress Jill Biden wore to the 2014 U.S. Africa Leaders Summit at the White House. Earlier in the year, during a trip to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Biden asked designer Sera Perfection to make the strapless gown for her.

One menswear piece (the one look that isn't fashioned from Vlisco fabric) comes from Wale Oyejide of Philadelphia, the designer behind the Ikiré Jones line.

While the dresses certainly serve as the exhibit's eye candy, the teachable moments are nestled in the mounted prints that line the perimeter of the room.

These start with an overview of Vlisco: In the 19th century, Dutch men who colonized Indonesia started to print and export textiles using the country's batik process. Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, a Dutchman and entrepreneur, founded Vlisco in 1846.

Dutch traders - who eventually developed ways to make the batik prints using machines - brought shiploads of fabrics with them to African ports, and by 1876, they had established a new market in central and western Africa. Eventually, the look was refined with input from African open-air-market traders.

Blum uses the rest of the 80 prints - which she picked out by hand in the Netherlands last year - to tell the cultural story of ankara through the Vlisco company.

Although the thousands of patterns are designed in the Netherlands and registered in the United Kingdom as numbered fabrics, the African women who trade in the open-air markets, referred to as "nanas," give them their popular names.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the designs were given spiritual meanings like the repeating eye pattern, which is inspired by the Egyptian god Horus, a symbol of protection, royalty, power, and good health. There are several versions of this pattern on display.

As the decades passed, the prints grew more thematic. The Nana Benz prints were a symbol of female empowerment, named after women who got rich enough selling Vlisco fabric to buy Mercedes Benzes. Hibiscus flower fabrics were included in dowries and given to brides as if they were engagement rings. A firecracker with a heart as a wick could be sign of a love gone bad - especially in a co-wife situation.

"These were ways that women quietly communicated with each other," Blum said.

The end is a showcase of fashion-inspired prints: lipsticks, mirrors, vanities, perfume bottles. And among the last of them is a graphic design of Louis Vuitton bags that came to be known as Le Sac de Michelle Obama. It was named during the first lady's trip to Ghana in 2009.

"It doesn't matter where the fabrics were designed," Blum said, "they became a part of the fabric of the society."

ewellington@phillynews.com

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