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.

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