Died at the age of 89, Maman Creppy was one of the first Nana Benz of Togo, who had created a powerful empire of wax fabrics. Portrait.
Dédé Rose Gamélé Creppy, is died at the age of 89. She was one of the most influential traders of wax fabrics in West Africa. She was the youngest and last of the "Nana Benz", the famous first generation of women fabric traders from Togo.
Wax fabric is a European adaptation of a classic Indonesian hand-dyeing technique, batik, which creates patterns using hot wax. The drawing areas are masked by the application of hot wax to resist dyeing. The fabric was introduced to West Africa by Dutch and English textile manufacturers at the late 19th century. Shopkeepers, who had become experts in the art of anticipating market needs, began to offer designs and colors to their manufacturers. They played an essential role in the success of the fabric. The Nana Benzes excelled in this.
Wax fabric has become popular due to its vibrant colors. It could be easily adapted to create stylish outfits for both men and women. Its colors are resistant and do not fade after washing. Its designs also conveyed messages and images of power, politics, beauty and wealth. They evoked the joyful or complex relationships between men and women.
The Nana Benz, a group of about fifteen Togolese women, have embarked on the trade of printed wax. The word “Nana” is a diminutive of “mother” or “grandmother” and “Benz” designates the Mercedes-Benz cars that some of them liked to drive – and which they had been able to buy thanks to their great success.
As an anthropologist, I met Maman Creppy – as she was affectionately known – several times during my research for my free Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa.
Rose Creppy's journey is incredible. She was one of the first Nana Benz of Togo, who created a powerful empire based on the monopoly of fabric patterns – manufacturers distributed patterns only to certain women. A prosperous Nana could be the sole wholesaler of more than 60 designs, sold to traders across the continent.
These ownership rights to models, combined with her business acumen and deep knowledge of regional tastes and styles, made Maman Creppy, like other Nana Benzes, a legend throughout West Africa. .
However, their know-how is unfortunately in decline. Since the early 2000s, fabric production has moved to the chinese factories. Today, the wax fabric is very far from traditional clothing.
From beads to fabric
Born on December 22, 1934 in the town of Aného, in the south of the country, Maman Creppy was determined to become a successful entrepreneur. She began her career by trading in pearls imported from Ghana. However, as she recalled in one of our many conversations, “it was hard manual work”. That's why, once she had built up a small stock of goods, she turned to fabric.
It began by trading in fancy fabrics made in Europe. They were cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper. The African textile industry with fancy screen printing started in the early 1960s when many newly independent countries resorted to the textile industry to support their economy.
As Maman Creppy accumulated capital, she turned to English wax prints from Arnold Brunnschweiler & Company (ABC) and, later, Dutch wax fabric Vlisco.
Maman Creppy then became a Nana Benz, one of the super-wholesalers of wax fabric. In the 1940s, his wives collected wax fabric in Ghana's capital, Accra, but by the end of the 1950s the heart of the trade shifted to the market in Lomé, Togo's capital. They made the Lomé market a place of economic power and national prestige.
The rise of Nana Benz
The heyday of the Nana Benz was between the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Traders flocked to the Lomé market, not only from Abidjan, Accra, Kumasi, Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Onitsha and Lagos, but also Kinshasa and Libreville.
They benefited from a unique commercial position. The trade rules in force in some African countries after independence made it difficult to trade in fabric. In Ghana, for example, the nationalist and protectionist policies of Kwame Nkrumah imposed high tariffs on imports. Imports of patterned wax fabrics were therefore not profitable. In Togo, low customs duties lowered prices. The Nana Benzes became key players in the wax fabric trade and enabled the Dutch to penetrate other African markets.
The Nana Benzes also had a monopoly on often unique patterns. For example, they intercepted the Yoruba trading networks that operated along the coastal corridor between Lagos and Accra, and sold so-called Yoruba and Igbo designs with color combinations specific to Lomé. It is through their effective monopoly on these grounds that the Nana Benzes have accumulated unprecedented wealth.
The Nana Benzes soon obtained the rights to distribute these classic designs from colonial companies, such as Unilever's United Africa Company (UAC). In doing so, they have strengthened their links with European companies. This allowed them to exercise control over an emerging urban cultural economy based on taste.
The Nana Benzes cleverly inserted themselves into the restrictive wholesale systems of European trading companies, with which they negotiated exclusive rights to the patterns for the distribution of the fabrics.
In a context of changing political regimes, women were able to consolidate their power and their economic interests by creating their own professional organization in 1965, the Association Professionnelle des Reveneuses de Tissu, an organization that negotiated trade policies directly with the State. . They agreed to a low tariff regime which made their imports of Dutch and English fabrics relatively cheap compared to other countries in the region. In return, they lent their brand image to the state, giving it a modern and prosperous corporate facade.
The end of the Cold War and the democratic movement that liberalized political and economic spaces had serious consequences for the fabric trade. And also for Rose Creppy.
The devaluation of CFA franc (by 50%) in 1994 transformed an everyday consumer good, the wax fabric, into a luxury product almost overnight. Until then, the wax fabric accessible to the greatest number, became a luxury product, because its price doubled. Many consumers turned to cheaper alternatives, including counterfeits from China.
The liberalization of the economy in post-Cold War Togo helped to derail the Nana Benz trade even further. The main distributor of wax fabrics – Unilever's United Africa Company – has withdrawn from the market and the Dutch manufacturer Vlisco has taken over its distribution points in West Africa. This decision dismantled the system of exclusive wholesale rights that ensured profitability.
To further aggravate the situation of the Nana Benz, Chinese counterfeits appeared on the market in the early 2000s.
Mama Creppy's Legacy
Until her death, Maman Creppy remained intimately linked to the market through her daughter, Yvette Sivomey, whom she introduced to the fabric trade in the early 2000s.
Like many of her elders, Maman Creppy was married but lived independently with her children, whom she sent to study in France. She owned a property in Lyon. In addition to her entrepreneurial activities, she held a ministerial position at the Lolan Royal Palace in Aného, her hometown.
Today, Sivomey is a very successful fabric entrepreneur. She works closely with Vlisco to rediscover and revive old patterns in new color combinations.
Dédé Rose Gamélé Creppy's legacy continues through the work of his daughter. It is alive and well present, integrated with the classic patterns of the wax that she co-designed and marketed as one of the most remarkable Nana Benz, these women traders from Togo.