South Africa. A country that is already recognised for its rugged beauty, and rich culture has another ace up its sleeve. With the increase of fashion events, the country is emerging as one of the top markets of our time. The ingenious styles that channel the inimitable blend of cultures wasn’t always this loudly celebrated. In fact, their industry is just a little over two decades old.
In 1994, their liberation from apartheid also signified the rebirth of the South African fashion industry. It would begin its shift from American-inspired couture to a style that better reflected South Africa. Shortly thereafter, it became institutionalized with fashion training institutions and trade shows, and in 1997 the South African Fashion Week was established. Major retailers even joined in on the initiative to promote South-African designs and since 2004, Edgars and Woolworths carry South African designers in their retail outlets. Woolworths for example has carried the works of Maya Prass and Craig Native at selected Woolworth outlets, while Edgars decided to work with local designers to create designs that would be under a label exclusive to Edgars.With fresh national confidence that they were now self-reliant as fashion leaders, their main focus was to develop indigenous South African brands that employed either traditional and/or contemporary African design. Some of the key players that emerged at the time were Sun Goddess, Stoned Cherrie and Loxion Kulca, which have all gone on to gain international acknowledgement. It’s interesting to note that the rise of black owned companies didn’t prevent each design house from maintaining their own emphasis. Stoned Cherrie, which is 50s slang for pretty girl, takes a more contemporary approach with urban African designs, while Sun Goddess taps into ‘ethnic’ SA clothing that incorporates traditional Xhosa heritage. Loxion Kulca derives inspiration from township street culture, with original collections being specifically influenced by Rosebank in Johannesburg and The Y [youth] culture which was linked to YFM; South Africa’s largest regional radio station which began broadcast popular local music from 1996 to black youth. The question then becomes how do you get local demand for the goods produced? As well as develop brand and designer recognition with the impact of narrow buyer-driven value chains and trade liberalisation to consider? Their answer came in the form of the innovative WOZA campaign. Wear Only ZA was launched at the 2011 Cape Town Fashion Week with the aim of raising South-African produced and designed fashion. It’s not just about encouraging the demand for local clothing, but also about building trust in brand South Africa which would directly benefit the entire clothing and textile industry in South Africa. The initial phase started digitally, with their aim to build an online South African fashion community that would be exposed to WOZA-approved and endorsed South Africa designers as well as have the opportunity to share their views on the movement and industry as a whole. The next phase was more of a physical approach where they would work with local stores to adopt WOZA labelling to make these brands easily identifiable to the consumer. WOZA may be managed by the Cape Town Fashion Council, but its funding comes from the Department of Economic Development & Tourism in the Western Cape’s provincial government. Another avenue to increase local demand, as well as, increase international attention is via established Fashion Weeks. Two of the country’s most notable platforms are South African Fashion Week (SAFW) and the Mercedes Benz Fashion Weeks (MBFW) by African Fashion International (AFI). The SAFW Annual report, 2015 edition, explains that the event is driven by an underlying ethos to connect designers to buyers in order to grow South Africa’s Creative Fashion Design Industry. SAFW may have adopted their model from London Fashion Week (LFW), they had to make their Fashion Week more than just a marketing platform. SAFW has to discover potential designers, mentor them and provide operation tools, as well as guide them through the business of fashion to develop strong networks with boutiques. They also have a virtual store known as Runway Online that allows consumers to easily purchase South African created works from the comfort of their homes. SAFW may be 20 years old but it’s only been two years since the establishment of the SAFW Men to showcase the best of SA menswear labels. The SS15 effort alone made over six million rand in just two months, according to Newslip Media Monitoring. SAFW also has trade shows, pop up shops, design student competitions for students enrolled at any of the SA Fashion Colleges or Universities, and the Fashion Agent. The latter is a wholesale and marketing agency that represents local designer brands in their network of 950 retail buyers, their permanent showroom and their special projects such as SAFW X Edgars Designer Capsule Collections. AFI was started in 2003 by Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, is also a multiplatform event focused on retail and development. However, it has the added advantage of the international edge and accolades of major sponsorship by Mercedes-Benz South Africa. It also has three Fashion Weeks instead of the usual two-formula. These are AW collections in Jo’burg, SS collections in Cape Town and MBFW-Africa is trans-seasonal. And then there’s AFI’s Fastrack program which is their answer to supporting young designer’ potential. Further proof that a fashion industry does need government support if it’s going to succeed and be profitable, was the establishment of the ‘Fashion District’. As part of their economic development program, the government set out in 2006 to make Johannesburg ‘an internationally recognized creative city.’ Part of the strategy to make this a reality Over 100 fashion institutions and enterprises are found here and this includes areas that offer designers training through fashion incubators such as SewAfrica. Situated in the inner city in a location already concomitant with the garment sector, the aim is to make it South Africa’s 5th avenue, where the entire clothes making process can happen smoothly and with the partnership with other local brands. A haven where clothes will be designed, made and displayed for purchase to stimulate local and international fashion tourism. To further aid this, there’s the Fashion Kapitol that is a block within the fashion district that hosts offices, studios, restaurants, an amphitheatre and 30 or so boutiques and shops. With South Africa being an emerging fashion industry, it’s bound to have a few areas of improvements that it needs to work on. Such as forging stronger networks between young upcoming designers and established fashion brands. It has the same perplexing challenge of protecting designers’ creativity as well as attaining a budget that reflects the desires of South Africa becoming Africa’s Fashion Capital. But it has acknowledged the importance of fashion and the need to rectify the underdeveloped areas of the fashion industry. Other African nations can learn from their successes and missteps to create stronger strategies that reconstructs their clothing industries for the better.