Anna Robertson’s Yevu label, based in Ghana, resists the pressure to upscale production of its wax print garments in favour of a sustainable business. By Alyx Gorman.

Australian-Ghanaian label Yevu

Apparel from Yevu’s Q4 2017 campaign.
Credit: Desire Clarke

Inside a slick retail space in the boutique strip of Sydney’s Paddington, the drumbeats of nine-piece band Karifi bounce off poured concrete floors and white walls. People shoulder-shimmy and sip cocktails poured into fresh pineapples. Women pull luminous pink dresses printed with yellow prawns off the racks that line the room, and queue for a small set of change rooms.

Out on the street there’s an overflow of people chatting, smoking and air-kissing. Many of them have brightly printed bags slung in the crook of their elbows, filled with new acquisitions. There’s a yoga class going on above them, doing their best to ignore the commotion.

It’s the liveliest the space has been in months – six months, precisely, since the previous Yevu pop-up. The social fashion enterprise stands out for its use of bold African wax prints, but its launch parties are almost as loud as its fabrics. “My sole aim was to re-create a pocket of what it feels like to be in Ghana at night,” explains the label’s founder, Anna Robertson.

Though Robertson is based in Australia, Yevu employs more than 20 people full-time from its factory in Accra, Ghana. “I consider Yevu to be a social business, because we don’t just outsource to ethical factories – we built our own,” Robertson says. “All the machinery that we use, the team, the workspace, having child care and all that sort of stuff, is all part of our creating a cooperative workspace in Ghana that is to the best benefit of our employees.”

The label has growing international appeal. In the five years since Robertson hosted her first Yevu pop-up, the brand has become a favourite for in-the-know Sydneysiders and Melburnians. Many of the prints Yevu uses have been in and out of popular rotation in Ghana for decades. “Some of my Ghanaian friends in Sydney see [Yevu] prints and say, ‘Oh, my mum used to wear that print,’ ” Robertson notes. To Australian eyes they look fresh and modern. Clean, simple cuts – short-sleeved shirts for men, jumpsuits and wrap dresses for women – contribute to this effect.

When Robertson first arrived in Ghana as an Australian youth development ambassador, she was immediately struck by the prints she saw everywhere. “The major factor in actually pursuing this seriously was knowing that these prints are designed and made in Ghana, and they are traditional in a sense, but also very contemporary in different contexts.”

Yevu has an online store, as well as its temporary sale events, but small runs mean products often sell out. Not scaling to the fullest extent of market demand – something that would be more difficult if Yevu had wholesale stockists – has contributed to the brand’s mystique. After the latest pop-up, Robertson’s inbox was flooded. “People were emailing me asking, ‘Where are the prawn jumpsuits?’ because we sold out half the prawn stuff on opening night in the store. So people who weren’t in Sydney to go to the store were quite upset that they missed out.”

African wax prints are also called Dutch wax prints, though their origin lies in Indonesia’s batik tradition. Like batik, they’re created through resist-dyeing, where different parts of the textile are protected over a series of dyeing processes, allowing a pattern to build over several washes. This process was industrialised by Dutch colonists, who hoped to undercut Indonesia’s artisan traditions by offering a cheaper, mass-produced product. Though the fabrics did not take off in their intended market, the Dutch found very receptive buyers along their trade route in West Africa. African entrepreneurs soon began adapting the fabrics to local tastes and incorporating culturally specific meanings into the prints. By the mid 20th century, the manufacture of wax print fabric was a significant industry in Ghana. Now, however, most of the fabric available in the markets of Accra is manufactured offshore.

The process is similar to fast-fashion adopting catwalk trends before the original designer’s clothes have even hit stands, Robertson says. “There are people who will scout and be in-country looking at new designs that are coming out. They’ll send those images back to wherever the factory might be, in Bangladesh or China, and they will churn those prints out at 10 times the pace and at half the cost, and bring them back into the country.”

For low-income Ghanaians, who want to wear clothes that reflect their taste, the more affordable fabric is welcome. However, Robertson says, “textile companies in Ghana are suffering because of it, because they can’t compete. Their technologies are out of date now, and the government’s not subsidising any of that sort of stuff.”

While Yevu’s garment manufacturing is directly overseen in-house, they do not produce clothes at a high enough volume to order fabrics directly from Ghanaian manufacturers. “We’re actually buying from the marketplace, as is every other Ghanaian in the country.”

Felicia Asetsiwah, Yevu’s production manager, is not concerned by printmaking going offshore. As long as the quality of the product is high, and the price is more affordable, she’d prefer to buy imported products because it means higher margins for the brand. But Robertson has Asetsiwah trying to keep their textile buying as local as possible, aware that her customers aren’t necessarily as pragmatic.

“People get very upset if they know that some of the prints that we use are not actually manufactured in Ghana,” Robertson says. “We try and hit a quota of 70 per cent made in Ghana, 30 per cent imported. That’s the reality of it. We can’t change that economic situation.”

Managing the expectations of her customers, Robertson has learnt, is key to running a successful social enterprise. “Without a great product, there’s really no viability,” she says. That’s what makes the brand’s semi-regular pop-up events so vital. They allow her to gauge the interest in her product, so she can scale the business in a way that’s sustainable for Yevu’s employees in Ghana.

“I’ve tried to not overpromise and underdeliver, with not only our staff in Ghana, but also our customers in Australia, by not giving in to this need to overproduce. We’ve grown quite slowly and quite organically, really based on being able to assess the demand for Yevu in Australia and how people respond to it.”

Robertson intends to keep Yevu’s growth slow, “and not really be too concerned about the industry, or seasonality of things”. Asetsiwah’s ambition is that in the next few years “a lot of countries will buy Yevu product”. In other words, more prawns for everyone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "House of wax".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.