West Flemish flags unfurl for Obama
The Waelkens studio is a mix of high-tech and handicraft. This family business started as a manufacturer of priestly vestments in 1926. At a later stage they extended their operations with embroidery for a number of Belgian clothing brands and even later they started manufacturing flags. The business managed even to sell their flags to the great of the earth, with even the White House boasting their handicraft. “Our flags are obviously much more expensive than printed flags, but the customer gets what he asks for. These flags look much more chic and have so much more allure. They are showpieces,” says David Waelkens, who runs the business with his brother Benedikt. The NATO headquarters and European Commission also unfurl Waelkens flags but the most exclusive ones which probably sell at around 500 euros apiece, are those hanging in the offices of Barroso and Van Rompuy. These exclusive flags are what earns the company its reputation, with the bulk of their volumes made up by the printed versions used as promotional flags for businesses or football clubs. Initially all flags were embroidered, explains David. But that all changed with the emergence of silk-screen printing in the eighties and then the digital printing press that followed. Waelkens jumped on both bandwagons, but did not forsake the earlier roots of the craft. “Theoretically high wages would force you to relocate the craft, but that cannot happen from one day to the next. It takes three to four years to train an apprentice. We only have four employees who are masters at this craft. In fact, they are artists.” Waelkens, which employs 20 employees and 20 labourers, invested millions in new digital printing machines in the past few years. “Digital printing for small orders will remain a local business. It gives us the flexibility to offer a fast service to our local customers,” says David. The brothers don't want to relocate abroad, but will not make any more investments for the time being. They have however increased their focus on their plant in Romania, which has seen its order book fill in the past six years with promotional flags and banners for big brand labels like Renault, Coca-Cola and AB InBev. “Delocalisation was unavoidable and saved us,” they say, insisting that it’s impossible to sustain a production line in a country with high wages like Belgium. In Romania, on the other hand, the work they produce with their screen-printers can compete with China as far as price is concerned. Despite continuous competition on the market, Waelkens still ranks among the last ten flag producers in Europe, with close contender Wollux in Moeskroen also still surviving. “The market has dropped because of the crisis. But we are still growing. During the past two years we managed an annual turnover of 15 to 20 percent each year,” says David, who attributes this fact to newly discovered markets and part of the production volume of liquidated competitors they could incorporate.