Dédé Rose Gamélé Creppy, who has died aged 89, was considered one of west Africa’s most influential wax fabric merchants. She was the youngest, and the final dwelling, “Nana Benz” – the legendary first technology of ladies fabric merchants from Togo.
Wax fabric was a European adaptation of a traditional Indonesian batik hand printing approach which created designs utilizing sizzling wax. Areas of design have been blocked out by making use of sizzling wax over them to withstand dye. The fabric was launched to west Africa by Dutch and English textile producers within the late nineteenth century. Ladies merchants – who grew to become consultants at predicting what the market wished – began feeding design and color ideas again to the producers. They have been integral to the material’s success. The Nana Benzes have been significantly expert at this.
Wax fabric grew to become fashionable as a result of its colors stood out, it might be simply tailor-made into fashionable outfits for each women and men, the colors are quick – they wouldn’t fade when washed. Its patterns additionally had messages and broadcast photos, from energy and politics to magnificence and wealth. They might converse to joyful or complicated relations between women and men.
The Nana Benzes, a bunch of about 15 Togolese ladies, began buying and selling within the wax print. The phrase “Nana” is a diminutive type of “mom” or “grandmother” and “Benz” is for the Mercedes-Benz automobiles a few of them preferred to drive – and which they have been in a position to purchase as a result of their massive success.
As an anthropologist, I encountered Maman Creppy – as she was affectionately recognized – a number of instances throughout analysis for my ebook Patterns in Circulation: Fabric, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa.
Rose Creppy’s story is an unbelievable one. She was considered one of Togo’s unique Nana Benzes, who created a robust empire based on a monopoly over patterns – producers distributed particular patterns solely to particular ladies. A profitable Nana might be the distinctive wholesaler for over 60 patterns, offered to merchants from everywhere in the continent.
These design possession rights, mixed together with her entrepreneurial savvy and a deep data of regional tastes and magnificence, made Maman Creppy, like different Nana Benzes, a legend all through west Africa.
Their craft nonetheless is unfortunately in decline. For the reason that early 2000s manufacturing of the material has shifted to Chinese language factories. At the moment, no wax comes close to the method.
From beads to fabric
Born within the southern city of Aneho on 22 December 1934, Maman Creppy was decided to turn into a profitable entrepreneur. She began her profession buying and selling beads imported from Ghana. However, as she recalled in considered one of our many conversations, “this was laborious handbook work”. So, as soon as she had acquired a small buying and selling inventory, she switched to fabric.
Maman Creppy initially traded in European-produced fancy-prints. These have been much less onerous to supply and therefore cheaper. Africa’s fancy-print textile business began within the early Sixties and lots of newly impartial nations have been utilizing the textile business to bolster their economies.
As Maman Creppy amassed extra capital, she switched to English wax-prints from Arnold Brunnschweiler & Firm (ABC) and later to Dutch wax fabric from Vlisco.
Maman Creppy grew to become a Nana Benz – one of many super-wholesalers of wax fabric. They initially collected the wax fabric from Ghana’s capital, Accra, within the Forties however, by the late Fifties, shifted the centre of commerce to the Lomé market in Togo’s capital. They remodeled the Lomé market right into a website of financial energy and nationwide status.
Nana Benzes growth
The heyday of the Nana Benzes was from the Sixties to the early Nineteen Eighties. Merchants flocked to the Lomé market, not solely from Abidjan, Accra, Kumasi, Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Onitsha and Lagos, but additionally from Kinshasa and Libreville.
They benefited from a singular buying and selling place. Commerce guidelines in some post-independence African nations made it laborious to commerce within the fabric. As an illustration in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah’s nationalist-protectionist insurance policies positioned excessive tariffs on imports. This made wax-print imports unprofitable. In Togo, low tariffs made the material cheaper. Nana Benzes due to this fact grew to become a key a part of the wax print commerce and enabled the Dutch to penetrate different African markets.
The Nana Benzes additionally had a monopoly over patterns – lots of them distinctive. As an illustration, they intercepted Yoruba buying and selling networks that operated alongside the coastal hall between Lagos and Accra, promoting so-called Yoruba and Igbo patterns in particular colourways in Lomé. It was their efficient monopoly over sample rights that garnered the Nana Benzes unparalleled wealth.
The Nana Benzes quickly established distribution rights for these traditional designs from colonial companies, equivalent to Unilever’s United Africa Firm (UAC). Within the course of, they strengthened ties with European companies. This allowed them to train management over an emergent city cultural economic system of style.
The Nana Benzes had cleverly inserted themselves into the restrictive retailing programs of European buying and selling firms with whom they negotiated unique sample rights to fabric distribution.
Amid altering political regimes, the ladies consolidated their energy and financial pursuits by creating their very own skilled organisation in 1965, L’Affiliation Professionelle des Revendeuses de Tissu, a physique that negotiated buying and selling insurance policies instantly with the state. They agreed on a low-tariff regime that made their Dutch and English fabric imports comparatively low cost compared to others within the area. In return, they lent their branding energy to the state, offering it with a felicitously trendy entrepreneurial façade.
The top of the Chilly Warfare and the democracy motion that liberalised political and financial areas had severe penalties for the material commerce. And for Rose Creppy.
A devaluation of the CFA franc (by 50%) in 1994 turned an on a regular basis shopper good, wax fabric, right into a close to luxurious nearly in a single day. Till then, wax fabric was obtainable to most. When the value doubled, wax fabric grew to become a luxurious good. Many turned to cheaper alternate options, together with counterfeits from China.
The liberalisation of the economic system in post-Chilly Warfare Togo additional derailed the Nana Benzes’ commerce. The primary distributor of wax fabric – Unilever’s United Africa Firm – pulled out of the market and the Dutch producer, Vlisco, took over its west African distribution factors. This dismantled the system of unique retail rights that made the ladies’s commerce worthwhile.
So as to add to the demise of the Nana Benzes, Chinese language counterfeits entered the market within the early 2000s.
Maman Creppy’s legacy
Till her passing, Maman Creppy remained intimately linked to the market via her daughter, Yvette Sivomey, whom she initiated into the material commerce within the early 2000s.
Like lots of her older friends, Maman Creppy was married however lived independently together with her youngsters, whom she would later ship to check in France; she owned a property in Lyon. Along with her entrepreneurial actions, she held a ministerial place on the Lolan royal palace of her native Aneho.
At the moment a extremely profitable fabric entrepreneur herself, Sivomey works carefully with Vlisco to rediscover and revive outdated patterns in new color mixtures.
The legacy of Dédé Rose Gamélé Creppy is preserved in her daughter’s work. It’s alive and nicely, woven into the traditional wax fabric patterns she co-designed and traded as one of many outstanding Nana Benzes, the ladies retailers of Togo.