Vlisco > Innovation Team:
Adding Value to Service Expansion:
Vlisco’s Innovation Journey

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The Dutch company Vlisco produces traditionally crafted ‘Dutch Wax Print’ fabrics for West African markets. Lately, the organization faces disrupted markets, competition, and Chinese counterfeit – and uses design thinking to come up with a new vision to secure its future.

Vlisco reacted to these changes in the West African market by introducing design thinking within the company to come up with a new vision and strategy. Vlisco produces fabrics since 1846, and is unlike other European fashion businesses, as Niels Verhart, Digital Innovation Manager, explains. “The product is not ready-to-wear, it’s fabric. It’s a semi-finished product. The Fabrics are produced in the Netherlands and sold on West African markets, where customers bring them to their tailors to have their outfit made.”

Vlisco was founded in 1843 as Vlissingen & Co, when the Amsterdam entrepreneur Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen took over a textile-press company in Helmond. He produced textiles for export to Brussels and Gent. Patterns were inspired by seventeenth century motives from China, India, and Persia. Van Vlissingen’s uncle, who worked in the former Dutch East Indian colonies, advised him to produce Batik prints for the East Indian markets. The roller-produced prints from a Dutch factory could be sold much cheaper than the handmade Batiks of local craftsmen. The Indonesians were not impressed by the looks of the imitation fabrics, though. When the East Indian colonies closed their borders to imitation Batik, Fentener van Vlissingen had to look for new sales markets. He started to export the Batik fabrics to wealthy customers in West African countries, where European luxury goods were sought after since the Middle Ages. What is known today as “African Print” is thus rooted in Javanese imagery and textile production.

Vlisco keeps their fabric treatment a company secret. The Dutch wax goes through 27 treatments by both hand and machine in the process. Wearing Dutch wax is a sign of wealth, some customers even carry the cloth in a way that shows the selvedge to make their status known. Vlisco fabrics send even more messages, though: They carry expressive names like “Kofi Annan’s brain”, “Michelle Obama’s Handbag” and “Happy Family”, which are chosen by the local saleswomen. Their motives are often associated with certain stories or messages that the wearer wants to convey. “Happy Family”, for example, underlines the pivotal role of a woman in the family. Vlisco collects and preserves these local tales on their Vlisco Stories website.

“Vlisco has been around for 170 years with a quite steady business development, but recently the African context is changing dramatically and fast,” says Betty van Breemaat, Consumer Insights and Brand Innovation Manager. “We are confronted with severe Chinese competition which has put Vlisco’s business under pressure. Technology has also been a market disruptor”, Betty explains. “Consumers are changing the way they shop, due to the rise of social media, formal retail and e-commerce.” Within the African youth boom, Vlisco recognized the necessity to transform from a traditional trade oriented business into a value adding business.

In 2010, Vlisco decided to build an innovation team within the company. Betty van Breemaat was one of the first to join this newly established group, “a very small team – out of 2300 people working at Vlisco, we started with two persons.” In the beginning, the team seemed like a start-up inside Vlisco: “We were trying to find our way within the existing organization. It was a rough period: explaining our purpose and the situation Vlisco was in at that moment, but our consumer-centric approach did find its way in the company. Gradually, our team grew with experts on consumer research, digital marketing, social media and content marketing,” Betty explains.

The new team actively started reaching out to their colleagues, inviting them to participate in different workshops and letting them profit from the team’s expertise on innovation and design thinking. The team’s core group is consistent, but for every project or project phase, they pull different people out of other departments to merge them into the team and profit from their expertise. “We are breaking all these silos, get people enthusiastic about a problem and start working on it,“ Niels says.

Mapping Consumer Journeys

The Vlisco Innovation Team started to map out consumer journeys of African Consumers. “We did a lot, and I really mean a lot of ethnographic research,” Betty says. “Not only quantitative research, but also a lot of qualitative research. We spent a lot of time with our actual consumers, talking to them, understanding their problems and filming everything. Something that hadn’t been done before within Vlisco.”

Ethnographic Research

Vlisco’s Innovation Team observed and talked to their users intensively.

  • 4 Countries: Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria & Demographic Republic of Congo
  • 56 x Shadow-shopping
  • 60 x Home Visits
  • 20 x Work Visits
  • 76 x Street interviews
  • ‘Week-in-the-life-of’ video reporting
  • 31 Creative focus groups, 257 participants
  • Viewing retail environments
  • 35 Tailor & Fashion Designer interviews

Based on this data, the team members developed thorough personas that covered their consumers’ fashion styles, needs and core values – from independent, ambitious businesswomen to global fashionistas or traditional mothers of five. “Our business was about transaction. Consumers bought our product and that’s where it stopped, as far as our part was concerned,“ Betty explains.

Through ethnographic research and customer journeys, the team found out about their users’ need to have customized clothing. “The process between buying the fabric and the end result of the garment is very frustrating and time-consuming“. Vlisco sells fabrics to consumers, who take them to their local tailors. “And then, one of the first difficulties in the journey is to explain what kind of style he or she wants to make with this fabric,“ Betty explains. The tailors struggle as well: “They don’t know how to convert the wishes into an actual garment. There are many frustrations and frictions in the after-purchase phase. We tried to figure out how we can be a facilitator in this process, by helping both our consumers and our business partners in the tailoring industry and the fashion designer industry. This was, on a high level, our starting point for ideation“. The team developed ideas which were polished into concepts and proceeded to involve other departments for prototyping and iteration. Then, to pitch ideas and test their prototypes, the team members traveled to their points-of-sale in Central and Western Africa.

Prototype I: Vlisco Prêt à Couture

Based on the consumer research and insights the Innovation Team developed a new service for Vlisco stores in Africa.

Insights Problems & Opportunities
  • the existing market for premium wax print declines due to low-priced competition and changing fashion behaviour
  • there is an identity blur of wax print brands
  • digitalization is changing the markets: development of formal retail and e-tail structure
  • global fashion brands entering the market are capitalizing on Vlisco’s design signature
  • most consumers experience frustrations with tailors: results do not match expectations and deadlines are often exceeded
  • tailors see their profession as a way to make a living: they work hard and have to meet their clients’ demands while facing challenges such as power cuts and taking care of their children during work
  • fashion designer do not spend most of their time doing what they love – sketch and create – but dealing with tailors to improve on the finishing
  • consumer don’t buy premium priced fabrics because they are concerned that their valuable piece may get ruined by tailors
  • a risk-free tailoring service would not only remove frictions in the consumer journey, but it would also stimulate the preference and purchase for Vlisco’s premium quality fabrics
  • through the inclusion of stakeholders in the value proposition, local relevance can be built with multiple benefits, contributing to Vlisco’s business objectives of being sustainable and scalable

The resulting service, Prêt-à-Couture, is a one-stop-shopping experience. Customers pick a fabric to their liking and choose from a range of different garments. A professional tailor takes the customer’s body measurements in the store; the garment is made in an atelier and delivered back to the store for fittings, where Vlisco takes responsibility for quality and timing. Thereby, Vlisco offers the processing of the fabric, which the customers needed to seek elsewhere up to this point.

    Ethnographic Research: The Innovation Team talked to customers, shop personnel, and tailors among others.

The concept was prototyped and tested with 24 loyal consumers, six store staff members, six tailors and two pattern makers and subsequently implemented in the Vlisco store in Accra, Ghana, in August 2014. Vlisco plans to expand the service to other Vlisco stores in Africa.


Prototype II: Vlisco Style Configurator

The Vlisco Innovation Team developed another concept that covered the post-purchase phase of the consumer: While the customer shops in the store, he or she gets to test a desired fabric in a mix and match app. By choosing from a library of silhouettes, the customer can preview the fabric within a garment and send the preview to their smartphone. After testing the prototype with store personnel and consumers, the team received valuable feedback. They started developing the business case, worked on features and interaction design and are now preparing to launch the first version into the Vlisco store in Lagos, Nigeria.

Consumer-centric and Colleague-centric

Vlisco’s headquarters are located in the south of the Netherlands and thus 6000 kilometres away from their markets and African colleagues. “This gap makes it hard to understand our consumers and it makes it hard to work closely with our African colleagues,” Betty remarks. “By using design thinking and creating multidisciplinary teams together with African colleagues we get first-hand information and empower the local organisation to come up with solutions. We are not only developing service concepts for our consumers, it’s also serving the company itself. I think that’s the beauty of it.”

During the testing phase of the ‘Style Configurator’ prototype, the team used simple tools like mobile phones and video cameras to record user feedback. “We conducted tests on different levels; conceptual, usability and interaction,” Niels explains, “basically by talking to the customer and filming everything.” Showing well-cut, informative videos instead of presentation slides is one of their cultural “hacks” to make their process more visible in a flexible way and spread results within Vlisco. “We try to not only be consumer-centric, but also to be colleague-centric – so we always emphasize with our colleagues to see where they are coming from and what they need to understand the relevance of this way of working,” Betty says. For the Innovation Team, this means to convince their colleagues on the run: “We show what we are doing and prove that it works and then, gradually, take people along on the journey. Nobody knew about these projects that we’ve been working on for the past few years, but now some people start seeing the relevance and ask questions like ‚Why didn’t you tell us before?‘. That’s a really interesting process. It’s starting to change, we can feel it.”

Adding Value to Service Expansion

Innovations like the Tailoring Service and the Style Configurator expand Vlisco’s services beyond fabric production and sales. Vlisco’s innovation team hopes to add value to this expansion by creating jobs locally and facilitating the local fashion industry, whether it’s tailors, fashion designers or trim suppliers – while simultaneously growing Vlisco’s business. Innovating their brand is crucial, as Betty explains: “By adding value to our product and embracing the African fashion industry, Vlisco secures its future. Africa is changing and we need to change as well, it’s the only way.”


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The Authors

Karen von Schmieden

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