I recently bought a copy of African Lace : A History of Trade, Creativity and Fashion in Nigeria by authors Barbara Plankensteiner and Nath Mayo Adediran (look out on my book review shortly) and it got me very interested in the heritage and the present situation of lace as a fabric of dress in Africa. We hear a lot of talk about wax print (Ankara) and I have personally sewn for many African weddings, in particular for Nigerian weddings where lace was quite popular at one point but other textiles have seemed to take over the last few years. But why is/was lace so popular? How does it relate to Africa and what initiatives are happening with lace coming up?
To find out more we spoke with Dr. Silke Hagen-Jurkowitsch about this very topic as she is a research specialist in African fabrics specifically African Lace. She was born into a “so-called “Textile”-family” as her mother is a seamstress and her father was a customs officer who in his former years dispatched huge amounts of African Laces. In the 80s several jumbo jets full of African lace weekly flew to West Africa, to Nigeria. As a small child she was often at the shipping agencies and was fascinated by the “lace ladies who were running around in flip-flops in winter and were dressed colour fully. It was always loud, energetic, dynamic, and there was a lot of laughter”.
“So, I grew up in constant contact with Africa and that is why Africa, especially the lace ladies, is for me a part of Lustenau”.
She undertook a Masters in Project Management, a PhD in Marketing (at Leeds Metropolitan university)) and also worked at the infamous crystal company Swarovski (www.swarovski.com), in Wattens (Tyrol, Austria) for 2 years.
“There I was member of an innovation project, which was organized as a start-up company with production companies in Lithuania, Thailand and Jordan. The project focus was to develop, test and launch a unique crystal application technology based on epoxy, called Pointiage™. I was the responsible project and innovation manager for all projects, which were all prototypes (e.g. fashion accessories like bags, mobile phones, etc., home interior (tables, chairs, mirrors, etc.), jewelry, car interiors (gear shift, etc.) etc.). At this time a consultant was doing an extensive “Africa market research” for this innovative crystal epoxy technology. So, we exchanged our deep knowledge on a constant level”.
Silke works independently to support companies with the development and implementation of innovative ideas that manufacture products. She recognizes ideas, opportunities and chances before others see them and works together to find sustainable solutions for the companies challenges through customized and comprehensive services such as trend research and creativity workshops. her areas of expertise are innovation, culture and entrepreneurship. with a strong passion in African textiles and lace. Due to her extensive knowledge of African textiles and crystals, she supports and coaches various textile companies or companies which are looking for innovative opportunities.
For 2 years she undertook huge field study in West Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Benin) about African Lace always in connection with other African Textiles (Wax, Damask, Adire, Kente, Adinkra, etc.). She went into the textile history of Europe, the colonial history, the religions in West Africa, the actual production and market situation in Austria and Europe as well as the Asian competitors and new distribution channels (Internet) and hubs (London, Dubai). At the end a project documentation with nearly 450 pages and an extensive photo documentation was presented to a selected audience in Austria in 2009. Now due to the economic and financial crisis she started to update and adapt this knowledge.
Since 2007 she has been working independently in the crystal, fashion, textile area between Europe, Arabia and Africa as an idea developer and implementer.
AFG) Wow such a great and very inspiring background Silke. So now you are based in Austria which is notorious for producing lace worn in many African countries can you tell us more about that?
Silke – My hometown is Lustenau (www.lustenau.at), Austria, located directly at the Swiss border, also close to Germany and Liechtenstein. This is also my living area and this area has a long history tofextile industry production. Lustenau itself is especially known for the African Lace production since the end of the 1950s. The idyllic Lustenau with its 21.000 inhabitants owes about a third of his wealth to the African Lace business. Since that time in Lustenau a special architecture emerged: single-family homes with long garages, inside the garages are the embroidery machines; there is also a special African Lace taxi service by Mama Bösch and other services like hotels, shipping agencies, etc. for the African Lace customers.
The African market, especially the West African market was actually conquered by chance. Since around 1880 in and around Lustenau lace and embroidery was produced not any more by hand but instead with machines. So, more companies started to produce embroidery for the world, mainly for UK, US and Russia. After the 2nd World War the production was broken down and a lot of companies had to close. Some pioneers started to travel to Asia (Japan) and Arabia in the end of the 1940s and of the beginning of the 1950s. The business connection with Arabia was doing good and was expanded also to Africa, to Sudan. As one of the lace sellers had to travel to Khartoum, he had to make a stopover in Lagos. Because at that time there was no direct flight between Zurich and Khartoum. He used his 8 hours to visit the local textile market in Lagos with his suitcase full of lace samples. The lace ladies in Lagos knew lace but not the “Austrian kind of African lace”. Both sides were getting crazy: the lace ladies were ordering as much as they could and the lace seller came back to Austria and proudly announced that he conquered a new distribution market for the Austrian Lace companies.
AFG) How did your lace career start from that in crystals?
AFG) How important is lace to Africa?
Silke – African Lace, is an embroidery especially produced for the West African market and the African diaspora.
So it is a traditional textile for which some families get into liabilities. The traditional elite African laces are imported and are expensive. Depending on the tribe the lace customer belongs to, the lace design and colors differs.
As embroidery is traditionally made in Nigeria by hand, African Lace is the modern version of machine produced embroidery. African Lace is nowadays worn at traditional occasions. For festive occasions, whether 1. Birth/baptism, 2. Wedding/birthday or 3. burial a uniform look is worn in Nigeria. It is called Aso-Ebi. Aso-Ebi means family cloth, so all men and women wear the same African Lace in the same color but tailor them individually.
At the moment lace is also in fashion around the globe. It started with the Prada collection in 2008 and lead to a lace collection by Louis Vuitton in 2012. Also African fashion designers took lace and included it in their collections e.g. Lanre Da Silva.
AFG) Which African countries are best known for using lace?
Silke – What I experienced, Nigerian customers are the main market besides Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon. As the African community is around the world, there are main hubs also in UK, US and Canada.
AFG) How possible is it to produce lace/embroidery made textile product in Nigeria/Africa?
Until now only 1 lace company, whose manager is from Lustenau, is producing African Lace in Lagos. In the 1970s around 30 lace companies from Lustenau set up a lace production in Lagos but over the time they had to close down. The remaining company produces on very old machines without computer support. The lace is sold not as “Made in Nigeria” but as “Swiss Lace” due to the issue that lace customers want to have imported lace.
From my point of view the main criteria’s, to be able to produce in a quality which is accepted by the lace customer and can be sold, are:
- Stable infrastructure, mainly constant power supply (oil, generator) for industrial machines and computer equipment
- Import of materials (machines, needles, fabrics, special yarns, crystals, etc.) not banned by the Nigerian government
- Actual designs in the desired colors
- Adequately trained and educated staff for the design, production, finishing and selling
- Goal: to produce lace on a consistent high quality level which satisfies the customers
AFG) Tell us about the project you initiated and the book you are working on.
Silke – In 2007 I started to work independently and I was looking for new innovative crystal ideas. By that time I re-conquered that African Lace decorated with crystals is produced in Lustenau. I was looking for an African Lace documentation: history, distribution channels, design developments, lace companies, traders, etc. After talking and meeting several Lace and textile experts in Europe the result was that such a documentation was only available for the European lace market not for African lace. I developed a concept, so called “Future paper – Documentation of Austrian African Lace in Africa”, presented it to the chamber of commerce (http://www.austrianembroideries.com/) and the county Vorarlberg (www.vorarlberg.at) and got funded.
The motivation for this project is based on learning from history of more than 500 years of trading with textiles between West Africa and Europe. Still today, there are the same factors and mechanisms used for doing business. Traditional clothing still is a symbol of status, reputation, wealth, etc. Furthermore money for high qualitative and valuable products is still available. But the product itself must be developed, marketed and sold in a 100% true-package to the customer.
The project objectives are therefore the exploration of the niche for Austrian Embroideries, to recognize the key factors of designing embroideries for different African cultures and to identify the key factors for trading in West Africa. The methodology is divided into three levels: Yesterday – Today – Tomorrow. The “Yesterday” part is based on existing literature in the fields of ethnography, cultural aspects, religion, art, strategy and marketing. This is followed by the “Today” part, which is a concentration on the actual situation in Vorarlberg, Europe, Africa, Asia and Near Middle East done in a qualitative way (e.g. observation, interviews, and photo documentation) directly in West Africa. Finally, the “Tomorrow” part consists of the combination of specific challenges for the Austrian Embroideries in West Africa as well as international best practices which lead to a positioning for the Austrian Embroideries and thereof important project propositions. This project can contribute to new knowledge by developing a research model in the future for specific high-end products. The conclusions derived from this model could be the recognizing of the importance of the eyelevel, the awareness of the customers´ background in nation, religion, tradition, and the usage of the customers language to market the niche of the product successfully with different marketing activities.
AFG) Were you involved in the Lagos lace exhibition in 2011?
Silke – The project “Future paper – Documentation of Austrian African Lace in Africa” was the research fundament and one of the impulses to develop the African Lace exhibition by the Museum for Völkerkunde in Vienna (www.ethno-museum.ac.at) and Lagos. The curator interviewed me several times and also took over some research findings for the exhibition. Furthermore, I connected her with textile and lace experts.
AFG) You mentioned that you worked on something with Vlisco can you tell us more about that what it was about?
Silke – During the huge African Lace research project, I got in contact with African prints, also known as Ankara, Wax, etc. As I was in West Africa on the textile markets and shops I found many coincidences to the lace business. There were two characteristic African prints didn´t have in 2009: 1. African prints were not decorated with crystals, 2. African prints were not embroidered, there was no lace on African prints.
My network partner and I developed a concept called “Crystallizing African textiles” and presented it to several African and European textile and crystal companies. One company was especially interested: Vlisco in Helmond, Netherlands. In 2010 we presented our concept “Crystallizing African textiles” to the Vlisco board in the Netherlands including a business model for the next 5 years including first prototypes of crystallized Vlisco and embroidered Vlisco. The results was that we got a 5 year contract to lead and support the “Crystallizing African Textiles” project including African Lace for Vlisco.
Due to poor leadership issues and business methods with participating lace companies, this shortly ended and we noticed that in the following months and years our ideas were copied and launched. Today you´ll find our ideas under the headline “Luxury collection” on the Vlisco homepage www.vlisco.com .
Nevertheless, I´m really proud to say that our ideas of “Crystallizing African textiles” and African Lace on Wax become a trend in the African fashion scene.
AFG) What challenges have you found doing projects in this arena?
The most successful businesses come out of a process of trial-and-error experimentation. Failure and false steps are natural parts of that process so companies need to be more tolerant of failure. Generally Europeans still have doubts doing business with and in Africa the business speed of Africans is fast, the speed of the Europeans is slower and doing business fast without a proper research and planning is not sustainable.
There is a problem of the stealing of innovative ideas and selling on their own is on the agenda and also that ideas and projects depend always on the will to invest money.
AFG) Tell us about the Lagos Business Angels – it sounds like such an interesteing concept what is it about and how did it start?
Silke – Lagos Business Angels (LBA) is a theatre play about business relationships between Europe and Nigeria. It is directed by Rimini Protokoll (www.rimini-protokoll.de). These directors always work with non-professional actors, they call it “experts of everyday life”. The screenwriter searched for special business topics in the connection Nigeria & Europe: so he found people working in the fields of car exports, oil & gas, real estate, pastor, shoe manufacturer, human resource, project management, investment analysis, fraud/corruption and African Textiles with African Lace. 7 LBAs are from Lagos and 3 from Europe. I got a recommendation by the chamber of commerce as African Lace and African Textile expert. So, I was contacted by the screenwriter and then casted by Rimini Protokoll.
We met for the first time in February 2012 and developed from scratch our individual and group presentations. After 5 weeks of development, rehearsing and singing the premiere on the 27th of March in Berlin was a great success. All following 6 shows were sold out.
The play itself works like a trade fair. As you as audience enter the theatre you get a “fair pass” with 10 booths signs on it. The booths are all around the theater: on stage, behind the stage, in the auditorium, on top of the auditorium, outside the theater, etc. You are part of a group of 25 people. As we have 10 LBAs there are 10 groups, which are then accompanied to the individual LBA booths. The show starts, each LBA performs his/her individual show for 12 minutes, than the group moves forward to the next booth with another LBA. At the end you saw 7 individual LBA shows, when you are seated like a “normal” audience in the auditorium. The last part of the theater is a group presentation, where we are presenting similarities and differences of Nigerian and European businesses.
If you want to see the LBAs in action and get some background information, have a look at my blog www.worldofsilke.posterous.com
AFG) How long is it on for? Is it ongoing?
Silke – From 17th to 19th March the play was in Brussel at the Kunste Festival des Arts. The dates for the next shows are not yet fixed. I will update the blog as soon as I know the dates.
The play itself is ongoing as long it is booked around the world, but I would love to play in Lagos, London, New York, etc.
AFG) What else would you like to do in Africa? And what would you like to see there in relation to fashion and textiles?
I would like to see development of “real” African lace designs. Development of education possibilities for Lace, African textile designers, production people and market sellers and lastly for the Nigerian government to support them with their local textile strategy.
We would like to thank Silke for her time and her wealth of experience. I personally am excited to see what she gets up to next and the promise of the upcoming book project is very exciting. I hope that this interview makes you look at lace in a whole new light and to consider it further for your designs.
So if you would like to find out more about Silke and her projects do check out her website below:
Interviewer: Jacqueline Shaw