By  on March 30, 2010

JOHANNESBURG — There was speculation model-turned-businesswoman Iman was coming, and in the end she arrived in South Africa not to saunter down the catwalk at South African Fashion Week, but to launch her color cosmetics line.

SAFW, now in its 14th year, took place last weekend in downtown Johannesburg’s historic Turbine Hall, short on fanfare but strong on focus. There were 33 designers from across the country — among them established names such as Clive Rundle, Superella, Amanda Laird Cherry, Ephymol and Karin Monk Klijnstra, as well as emerging talents Bianca Warren, Non-European and Silver Spoon — showing over three days, with two-hour networking sessions with buyers and the media in between.

“This is what it is all about,” said SAFW’s founder and director Lucilla Booyzen. “It is not about having a party or a spectacle. It is about creating jobs and building a business, and understanding that this is a serious business.”

Booyzen explained that “the tough trading environment of the past year has forced many designers to reassess their business models and to consider additional markets.” A viable opportunity that has emerged from SAFW’s research is to increase their supply to boutique retailers nationwide.

A record number of 40 independent retailers per show attended this year’s event. The buyers had the opportunity to scrutinize each of the collections up close and interact with the designers.

While it may be every designer’s dream to have his collection snatched up by the likes of Barneys New York or Colette, Booyzen firmly believed it was important to build a strong local base first. “If designers do not understand what it entails to run a fashion business on a local level, they will not be able to cope on an international level,” she said. “They also cannot expect government funding through the Department of Trade and Industry because the funding simply does not exist for individual designers.”

She mentioned the DTI preferred to bring groups to international trade exhibitions, “which may work in terms of generating publicity, but rarely in terms of generating business.”

Instead, SAFW has focused on building a strong buyer culture in South Africa and encourages the growth of fashion boutiques that champion local design talent. “I think it’s significant,” Booyzen said, “that in the last five years, 30 designers who have shown through SAFW have now established their own-name boutiques across the country.”

In fact, she added, “we do not take on a designer unless they supply at least seven stores, or have their own boutique. Then we give them a platform through SAFW.”

The participating stores even agree to pay 50 percent up front for a designer’s collection, she said, “which is unheard of in the business. But this has stimulated productivity and encouraged growth.”

The black designers, she pointed out, have flourished under this new direction. “I think it’s fantastic to see black designers coming to the foreground. Ephymol, Darkie, RjKay and Gugulam all presented strong collections,” according to Booyzen.

But one of the standout collections was that of Loxion Kulca by Ole Ledimo. “It was a fantastic example of culture fusing with fashion. It was streetwear with a casual, funky, hip urban vibe — with leopard prints and an Eighties disco palette revived, yet there was a strong African spirit all throughout,” according to Booyzen.

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