JOHANNESBURG — Does a nation like South Africa, with a population of 47 million, 27 percent unemployment and a per capita income of $1,100 really need three fashion weeks within weeks of each other?
"No," said Marianne Fassler, one of the most enduring creative forces on the South African design scene. "The industry is in the most extreme dire straits. We used to be highly geared up for export, with very sophisticated manufacturing facilities. Today, that is all gone, with massive job losses in the sector. It becomes more important, then, for the whole industry to pull together. All we need is one prime showcase, one fashion week."
The country's fashion season kicked off with the first Durban Fashion Week, held in the coastal city from June 15-18. Johannesburg was the next stop, with the long-running South African Fashion Week from July 28-31, while Cape Town Fashion Week, now in its third year, took place from Aug. 10-13.
Gavin Rajah is in a unique position to comment on the emergence of competing fashion weeks. The Durban-born, Cape Town-based designer is equally known for his sleek, luxurious tailoring and his controversial profile. Once heavily involved in Cape Town Fashion Week, he has since turned his attention to Durban.
"SA Fashion Week is so beauty pageant," he said. "Is it a seminar or a fashion week? A trade show or young designer expose? There's this focus on being so politically correct and pushing avant-garde design that the realities of the business are completely overlooked.
"Cape Town, on the other hand, is very rah-rah-rah. Though it's probably more in touch with fashion reality than Jo'burg, it is ultracommercial."
Durban, Rajah believes, is well placed to become the fashion week, and it's not just because of the abundance of talent. "It's a chance to do something right, to offer not just great design and amazing quality, but professionalism of the highest standard, as well. All the press came, local and international. We had buyers flying in, notably from the Middle East. But we didn't wait for the buyers to see us; we went to see them within a week after the shows with a complete and polished look book.""It's a reflection of egos," said Dion Chang, one of the driving forces behind SA Fashion Week. "I personally believe it's completely unnecessary to have three fashion weeks. It doesn't do the industry any good."
What sets SA Fashion Week apart from the upstarts, Chang claimed, is its commitment to the development of the fashion industry through the discovery of new talent, ongoing training and education and exposure to the public.
"Five years ago, Stoned Cherrie, Maya Prass, Black Coffee and Craig Native were the new talents to look out for," he said. "Today, they are established names in South African fashion."
Indeed, in a groundbreaking collaboration engineered by SA Fashion Week, Woolworths recently launched an exclusive limited-edition collection designed by Prass, Native and Amanda Laird Cherry for Stoned Cherrie.
It was a significant move by the nation's top retail chain, which is more accustomed to production runs of 1,000 units and up rather than the much smaller quantities of about 400 units of the designer collection. The limited-edition line is being distributed in carefully selected Woolworths stores nationwide and has been a commercial success.
Despite rumors that designers showing in Durban would be banned from participating in Johannesburg, some did at least two, if not all three, fashion weeks. "I don't care if it's a fashion week, a fashion show or a fashion fiesta," said designer Malcolm Kluk. "We have our customer base in all three places, and we were there for them. In fact, we showed separate collections for each fashion week, tailored specifically for our clientele in each city."
Kluk, who apprenticed with John Galliano after graduating from London's Central St Martins, is famed for the fit of his clothes. For SA Fashion Week, he teamed up with textile manufacturer Vlisco to produce a collection that was glamorous, modern and shimmering.
"The challenge of using fabrics considered ethnic and not sophisticated appealed to me," he said, sending down the runway damask cropped pants, rope-print full skirts and panel-print brocade coats that had echoes of Marie-Antoinette opulence mixed with African earthiness.
Kluk has dressed Beyoncé Knowles and boasts an international client list. He believes South African fashion still has a long way to go, and the crisis in the manufacturing sector hasn't helped at all. "You can have a designer with a knock-out collection," he said, "and then he gets an order from Barneys for 1,000, even 500 pieces, and he simply cannot deliver. Which is why I think the industry has a future in terms of a more couture-based approach. I know I can give the customer good value for money and good design, with quality on par with that of the top European houses at a fraction of the price."The Congress of South African Trade Unions reports the nation's clothing, textile and leather sectors are close to collapse, with jobs being lost at an alarming rate. According to a report in the newspaper the Mail & Guardian last March, "approximately 100,000 formal jobs have been lost in the last 10 years, 17,000 in the past 12 months alone and 800 in January 2005."
The threatened closure of clothing giant Rex Truform's Salt River plant in the Western Cape would render another 1,000 people jobless.
"It's not a question of skill or training, but of production," insisted Stephen Quatember who, along with David Tlale, Palesa Mokubung and Palesa Tshukudu, is a young talent to watch out for. For now, however, Quatember is thinking domestic, though his debut collection was pared down and polished enough to attract an international audience.
Rajah believes "the strategic objectives of fashion week should be focusing on the ability to deliver; growing a sustainable industry that will generate revenue for the economy."
Many designers, he said, are "so bent on trying to be different that they end up not being different at all. It's important to look at fashion not just as a platform for design, but a platform for the industry."
That means going back to the basics, sharpening pattern-making and technique, as well as becoming more market savvy, acknowledging the importance of marketing and public relations support, observers said.
"It's so typically South African," Fassler said. "All this competition between Cape Town and Johannesburg, and now Durban. It's completely shot the industry in the foot."
SA Fashion Week closed with a show that featured Fassler's intricately detailed and pieced confections of crochet and chiffon, ethnic shweshwe prints stenciled onto silk and deconstructed into floaty panels.
Fassler took a bow alongside another local designer, Vino, and three of the biggest names in Indian couture — Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Malini Ramani.
In a way, the Indian guest designers stole the show — Bal's delicate all-white collection, Tahiliani's sophisticated, structured draped silhouettes and Ramani's color-soaked and brightly beaded Indian princess-meets-rock star resortwear demonstrated to South Africans just how successfully the three designers have been able to transcend the current hippie-luxe-with-a-touch-of-Bollywood trend and reinterpret traditional Indian elements in a bold, contemporary manner with global appeal.
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