By  on August 8, 2006

JOHANNESBURG — "Let the air-kissing begin," cooed program director Dion Chang as he formally opened the 10th South African Fashion Week here late last month — complete with a massive birthday cake.

Along with the air-kissing came the infighting and the complaining. After 10 years in business, SA Fashion Week is as rife with scandal and controversy as ever, even though it has been bolstered by a $220,000 core sponsorship from local insurance giant Sanlam.

The week has unquestionably become a platform for launching young South African designers. Craig Native, Amanda Laird Cherry, Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee and Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie are just some of the South African design talents whose careers were launched over the years through the shows.

The search for fresh talent continues with the annual Elle New Talent Competition, which is the first show of fashion week. This year's winner was Tony Mestre, whose clothes were clean, spare and in a sober palette of black, white and gray. The judges, explained Elle South Africa's managing editor Jacqui Myburgh, believed Mestre had come up with a collection that was both coherent and commercial.

"The business of fashion" is the thrust of SA Fashion Week, held at the Sandton Convention Center. "Fashion is a business," said the event's founder and director, Lucilla Booyzen. "It is about creating jobs and generating money."

She cited as an example the ongoing Fashion Fusion project — a collaboration among designers and craftsmen in rural communities doing beadwork, leatherwork, crochet and the like. "This year, we fused 225 crafters with 27 designers, resulting in huge job creation," she said.

Unlike other fashion weeks around the world, mainly seasonal collections showcased on the runways for buyers and the media, SA Fashion Week is a trade show combined with seminars and workshops; the fashion shows bring in the glamour factor. Booyzen said the seminars provided an opportunity to network with buyers and the media, while the "hands-on" workshops were a forum for the sharing and transfer of knowledge.

Albertus Swanepoel, the South African-born and U.S.-based milliner who has created hats for the likes of Marc Jacobs and Paul Smith, conducted a workshop on hat design, while François Bouchet, Carolina Herrera's head draper and pattern-maker, talked about conceptualizing ideas in fabric, as well as draping.But not everyone agrees with the idea. "It's all very well to have these seminars and workshops," say Cape Town-based designers Malcolm Kluk and Christiaan Gabriel du Toit, whose newly combined label Kluk & CGDT was launched at the recent Cape Town Fashion Week. "But a fashion week should primarily be a showcase for our clients. The educational aspect of it should be a permanent focus of SA Fashion Week, perhaps through a design school."

Kluk pointed out, "There is no store buyer culture here, and the international retail buyers are still not coming to the shows." Instead, the buyers are individual boutique owners themselves, "our regular client base, and not the chain-store buyers who don't stock us anyway." Du Toit added that apart from a few showcases for young designers, such as YDE and The Space, "there are no multibrand boutiques stocking luxury local labels."

Kluk & CDGT, known for crisp tailoring and beautifully draped and detailed dresses in silk jersey and crepe, have their own boutique in Cape Town, and sell here and in Durban through seasonal trunk shows, along with the annual fashion weeks in these cities.

This year, however, the design duo was conspicuously absent from SA Fashion Week, despite previously being regulars. Since Durban Fashion Week bowed in 2005, and Cape Town Fashion Week has become an important fashion event, some designers' relationships with SA Fashion Week have reportedly been severed.

Kluk was one of those told by Booyzen herself that they could not participate in this year's SA Fashion Week because they had shown in Durban and Cape Town. Kluk offered to present a different collection, under a different label, even, but he claimed Booyzen refused. Kluk and du Toit were therefore surprised that Craig Port, a men's wear designer who had shown in Cape Town two weeks before, showed during SA Fashion Week. "I didn't show the exact same collection," Port said. "I was part of a group show; there were 10 of us. I had about 10 outfits that I also showed in Johannesburg. That was where I decided to show my complete collection."

Booyzen said SA Fashion Week is "a completely open platform" and it is up to designers to decide where they want to position themselves, as the event is a "marketing exercise" for them. She is quick to point out, however, that just as Armani will not do Paris, London and Milan in one season, local designers should choose which fashion week they will participate in.  "Fashion editors are not going to Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg to see the same designers present the same collections. What for? It's a bit futile."But the fashion market in South Africa is, for the most part, still segmented, as are the celebrities. The cut, the colors and the entire design ethos don't always translate seamlessly across racial divides. 

Moreover, there are very few fashion buyers in South Africa, and they are not buying in quantities that will sustain a young designer commercially. Booyzen insisted SA Fashion Week is "stimulating buyer culture." There were around 100 national buyers attending the shows, she claimed. Small boutiques are cropping up all over the country, according to her, and this way, she explained, "we can tell designers, ‘Don't go out and start a business. Why not work with the buyers and start an emporium, where your clothes will sell alongside three or four other designers?' Let these buyers be business partners for these designers."

Tongues nevertheless had been wagging about how key designers have been excluded and foreign ones flown in from Mexico and India. Overseas guests included Indian designers Manish Malhotra and Vikram Phadnis, who showed alongside Amanda Laird Cherry in the closing event, billed as "Bombay Chic in the City of Gold," as well as Ricardo Pineda of Pineda Covalin in Mexico, who showed alongside Craig Port. Their designs were a refreshing change from the blacks, whites and earth and spice tones favored by many other designers' offerings, like the highly intellectual clothes of Clive Rundle and the accomplished second collection of Stephen Quatember, whose aesthetic is a cross between Martin Margiela and Yohji Yamamoto.

"Look," du Toit said, "the truth is, the infrastructure in Cape Town and Durban is superior to Johannesburg." In Cape Town, for the $2,200 participation fee, a designer gets a runway three meters wide, lighting, 15 models, two hair and makeup artists and a venue that can seat 1,200 people. Contrast that deal with the $6,610 designers must pay to join SA Fashion Week, which gets them "a smaller runway, basic lighting, one hair and makeup artist and five models. And a venue that seats 400 at the most," said Kluk.

Yet Johannesburg remains key, Kluk added, "because it's the financial capital. That is where the money is. Even before our show ended, we'd already sold half our collection. Last year, as our models were sashaying down the catwalk, customers were already calling our Cape Town boutique to reserve the clothes they had just seen."But at the end of the day, as Vanashree Singh, co-founder of Durban Fashion Week, says, "it's about the clothes, the designers and their market." And the designers seemed to display a firm grasp of their market's needs. Sun Goddess, Stoned Cherrie, David Tlale, Loxion Kulcha and the new couture label Aziza by Bongiwe Walaza and Thabani Mavunla, for instance, are unequivocal about the African-ness of their designs. By "funkifying" traditional shweshwe prints and jazzing up both day and eveningwear with beadwork, they bring urban edge and sophisticated swagger to African street couture in a way Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie says is "exciting and revolutionary." 

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