African arts, culture + politics

Behind The Label: Vlisco´s Creative Director


(, March 2012) Words Carinya Sharples

Its high-quality, colourful designs have earned Vlisco a loyal following across Africa, and taken the Dutch company from textile empire to international catwalk brand.

Hot off the launch of Vlisco´s latest campaign, the Japanese-inspired Silent Empire, we spoke to creative director Roger Gerards about the creative process behind Vlisco´s unique designs, his role in the Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design exhibition and why Vlisco is (and isn´t) an African brand.

How did you come to work at Vlisco?
I studied fashion design in the Netherlands at Arnhem [Academy of Art & Design], which is quite a famous school, and I know Vlisco from that time – in the 80s. I had already visited Vlisco, because I thought their fabrics were exceptional and beautiful.

Five years ago I started at Vlisco as a design manager, head of the design textile department, and over five years I became more and more responsible for all the seasonal concepts we are making now. A year ago I became creative director of Vlisco… I was also in charge of implementing the new seasonal structure – we now bring a totally new collection to the market four times a year.

Did you use wax prints before or did you have to learn on the job?
Well, Vlisco is so exceptional and we are really the only ones who are using this [technique] in this way so I really had to learn from scratch. I had a lot of experience of fashion before but when you start working for Vlisco you have to start all over again, which is nice. It takes about a year to get used to all the techniques and the way of designing. And of course the design department is not based in the market we are working for, so you had to learn about that as well.

How did you learn about the cultural significance of Vlisco in Africa?
I travelled around to over eight countries in the beginning, to see all the places where Vlisco is sold. Benin, for example, is a country where we have a huge office and a lot of trade goes on there. Also DRC, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso…and of course London and Paris. I met a lot of consumers as well, and learnt how much the brand is loved. People love us, they love the fabric – they love to work with it.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
Everything! Just by living and looking around. But that´s not me – I´m head of the department and there are currently 14 designers who make those collections. I give inspiration to them: I give themes, words or thoughts, and we talk about it. I´m also responsible for the colour card, the colours we are using every season, and from that we start designing.

And you work with quite a few African designers as well?
Always. We sell not only product but also inspiration for African designers to design. Because from the collections they get ideas for fashion design as well.

Do you have any African designers in house or do you work with them on a collaborative basis?
Yes, all on projects. We have European textile designers, and now there are some designers who have an African background, but they are just good designers that we select.

You´re involved in the Netherlands exhibition Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design, can you tell us a bit about that?
When I started, Vlisco in Europe was seen as an exotic brand that has a lot of connections with Africa – or even is an African brand, and a lot of exhibitions until five years ago were in a museum of tropical art or colonial history etc. But I´ve always said Vlisco´s not an African brand, Vlisco´s a design brand which Africans love. And from that perspective I always thought it would be interesting to have an exhibition about Vlisco as a design brand in the Museum of Modern Art, and that´s happened now in Arnhem…The Suze May Sho artists collective told me they really liked the Vlisco brand and I gave them the key to Vlisco to make an exhibition around the brand. It´s not only about Vlisco, it´s also about African art and there´s a lot of fine art associated with the Vlisco products.

And there is a book associated with the exhibition?
There are two books, there is one about the brand, Vlisco, which is a small book meant for students. And the other is a limited-edition book about Vlisco fabrics. That for me was very important because it is really a book about the fabrics themselves; the colours, the techniques and the stories people are making around these fabrics on the market. We took a lot of effort on quality, so there are 200 designs which have been printed and the colours are quite exceptional. Each book has a different textile wrap so you really buy a unique piece – and there are only 1,000 for sale.

Traditional fabrics often have a lot of meaning attached to them. Is meaning something you consider in the design at Vlisco?
The designers take a lot of effort to design these patterns and I know they have their own ideas but we never communicate them. I always say that the designers are the father of the drawing and the consumers are the mothers, who baptise the cloth by giving it a name. And that´s really exceptional – you don´t have other products in which the consumer plays such a role. I always say we don´t sell a product but an inspiration.  We give the freedom to people to play.

Looking forward, what are you working on now?
I´m now with May/June 2013, so that´s second and third season next year. And we´re already thinking about 2014… Vlisco is different to other fashion brands. We really have our own inspiration and do our own thing every time. In that way we are a brand other brands are looking to.

Six Yards Guaranteed Design is at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, Netherlands, until May 7 2012.