Abidjan is a longstanding fashion capital. The Ivorian city serves as the operational headquarters of coveted labels like Gilles Touré and Loza Maleombho. Regardless of your station in life, it is one’s life ambition to sapé or be among the best dressed. The foundation of West African fashion is undeniably the Ankara print. From mango sellers to corporate executives, everyone wears African print cloth.
Twice a year, the patron saints of all things Ankara, Vlisco and its local subsidiaries Woodin and Uniwax hold a 2-week pop up event called “15 Jours de Pagnes or 15 Days of African Print”. The event takes over an iconic park in the middle of the bustling business district of Plateau and recolors it with vibrant patterns. The festival took place from April 25 through May 14 from 8am to 5pm. However, I did not catch wind of it until its final days. On the Thursday of the final week, four friends and I ventured from our offices during our lunch hour to see what was what.
Having moved to Abidjan only weeks before, I convinced myself it was important that I christen my arrival with a new fabric. Although I had seen the huge Vlisco and Woodin flagship stores many times in Vallon, there was something appealing about the open-air market style set up of the pop up event. It felt friendly convivial and middlebrow and that appealed to me better than shopping in the quite refined and intimidating store. Moreover, the flyers promised des prix fous (unbeatable prices) so it seemed well worth combating the humidity to get a deal.
Organized in a circle in individual stalls by what seemed to be wholesalers, a variety of patterns and colors were available. There were beautiful offerings from Woodin and Uniwax detailing vibrant geometric and abstract shapes, but I had a mission. Vlisco Super Wax Hollandais is the Birkin of African print and thus Vlisco was my target. It was crowded. After gently pushing through fellow hungry shoppers, I navigated my way to the front of each stall and sometimes negotiated my way into them to get a full view of all that was on offer. By my sixth stall it happened – I finally fell in love. I saw the print I wanted: ‘Je cours plus vite que ma rivale’ (I run faster than my rivals). Vlisco is known for the stories and names it gives each of its textile creations and the name admittedly contributed to why I wanted it. I rationalized it as wearing a proverb, an affirmation that would remind me of my worth each time I wore it. I was sold.
I approached the salesperson in true West African style ready to negotiate, calling her my sister and cracking jokes as is customary to break the ice. “CFA 36,000”, she said when I asked the price. I asked again. “CFA 36,000”. That is the equivalent of CFA 55 euros. I hesitated. This is a lot of money for something I still have to sew. This price was for trois pagnes, the equivalent of 6 yards. That amount of cloth can make you serious outfit but I did not really want a serious outfit. I wanted ready to wear pencil skirts for work so it seemed like a bit much. I tried to problem solve: since I was in a group, I thought, why not have everyone select a cloth and then we cut 2 yards for each person and share. That way for a similar amount of money, we could get up to three different pagnes. Unfortunately, we did not have the same taste in cloth. I went back to the saleswoman.
“Mais faut me couper 2 pagnes seulement pardon, ehhhn?” in my best French. She said no. Six yards at CFA 36,000. Did I really want to spend EUR 55 on Vlisco? To help me decide, the last resort was the Internet. A quick check on the Vlisco website revealed that the same fabric was EUR 75 for six yards. Armed with that information, I ran back to the salesperson…plus vite que ma rivale! It was overall a good time, a nice break in the monotony of the workweek and yes, there was a decent discount.
Pop-up gold. Thank you Abidjan!