JOHANNESBURG — More than a month of African fashion weeks has come to a close and as much as the fashions on the runway, the shows exhibited the hurdles the continent’s designers face in everything from sourcing to retail.
South African Fashion Week, which turned 20 this year, started things off in September with its fall 2017 collections at its new home for two seasons running atop the Hyde Park Corner shopping center in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Hyde Park.
SAFW also received a boost from its new retail sponsor, the South African department store chain Woolworths. While there had been previous collaborations with Woolworths — notably “South African Designers at Woolworths,” with the likes of Maya Prass, Stoned Cherrie, Stephen Quatember and Craig David creating capsule collections for the selected stores from 2002 to 2009 — this actually is the first time a formal partnership between the two parties was formed.
The Woolworths partnership is aimed at fast-tracking South African fashion from the runway to the shop floor “in a move to support homegrown talent where it matters most — commercially,” according to a Woolworths spokesperson. Billed as “SAFW x StyleBySA,” the offering consists of capsule collections by SAFW designers and will launch in mid-2017.
“In my opinion the association with Woolworths is premium,” said Lucilla Booyzen, founder and executive director of SAFW. “Woolworths is selecting fewer designers to start off with, but they are buying from them and they are committed to developing the collections with the designers, which is a great step forward. I believe that this vote of confidence from Woolworths will not only benefit the designers that are chosen to sell in Woolworths but all the designers in South Africa.”
Shortly after SAFW ended, Ghana hosted the maiden edition of Accra Fashion Week in the capital, which showcased the collections of well-known Ghanaian designers such as Yvonne Exclusive, AVD Lifestyle, Senyo Foli, Bri Wireduah, Afre Anko and Bushai Weave.
Nana Tamakloe, managing director of Accra Fashion Week Ltd., admitted that the Ghanaian public was not quite ready for a fashion week. “Many of what we intended to do, our fashion-forward ideas, were not executed. Fashion shows in Ghana are treated as concerts as opposed to business events between buyers and designers, and as much as we tried to get the boutiques, it didn’t materialize. They don’t know their worth [when it comes] to such events as they have been excluded for years. So it gives us targets for next year,” Tamakloe said.
Although growth of the Ghanaian economy — largely dependent on the manufacture and export of digital technology goods, as well as the export of hydrocarbon and industrial minerals — has slowed from a high of 8.5 percent in 2013, it is still one of Africa’s rising stars. Growth for 2016 is forecast at 5.8 percent.
Tamakloe also acknowledged that local designers face an uphill struggle. “Your biggest source of clothing is second-hand clothes. Then you have imported clothes, then you have the tailors who make various styles, before the business of [local] designer brands. However, things are changing so rapidly so it might be a different story next year.”
In terms of retail, she said that in Ghana “for designers it is fairly dead. Designers are hardly in any shops, and you can count on one hand the number of shops that stock Ghanaian designers. Most designers that sell in shops usually have their clothes hosted in their own, and hopefully we can help change this next year.”
Nigeria also still struggles from the lack of a well-defined retail environment, according to Omoyemi Akerele, the director and founder of the annual Lagos Fashion and Design Week, now in its sixth year.
“The fashion retail landscape in Nigeria is therefore gradually trying to rid itself of this informal open market retail approach for a more curated, consumer-led shopping experience,” she said. “The growing consciousness to #BuyNigerian has sparked off a resultant effect on the increase in the number of retailers who stock African designers. Luxury retail stores such as Alara and Temple Muse also understand the need to create a shopping experience for their clientele that’s different from what they’re used to outside Nigeria — instant access to covetable items off international runways as well as a carefully edited collection from some of Africa’s finest brands.”
Nigerians have the reputation in Africa of being serious shoppers of designer brands both at home and abroad. Many Nigerian designers have also successfully built an international presence, such as Maki Oh (who showed at LDFW via invitation-only at Alara) and Lisa Folawiyo.
South Africa has, inarguably, the most developed retail infrastructure on the continent. The urban areas of the country are dotted with sprawling malls — Mall of Africa, Sandton City, Canal Walk and Gateway among them — that have become tourist destinations for travelers from all over Africa. Sandton City, for instance, opened its doors in 1973. The most recent major renovation and expansion in 2015 saw its retail area increase to 1.4 million square feet.
Yet local designers are still not widely represented in the major malls, which makes the partnership with Woolworths all the more welcome. A previous four-year experiment with Edgars did well, Booyzen said. “It afforded the designers that showed at SAFW retail experience that is incredibly valuable. Through the five store-in-store concept stores that SAFW ran within Edgars, the consumers got to know the SA designers and above all buy the designers.”
South Africa is also the only fashion week for now operating on a seasonal basis; Accra and Lagos present only once a year. In a sense, the see-now-buy-now model that is disrupting the fashion industry at large has always been at work in Africa. Except for orders placed by stores a season ahead, designers tend to work according to their own timetable.
“The impact of see-now-buy-now on the creative fashion industry is minimal,” Booyzen said. “At the moment this can only be done by designers that have their own stores. Clive Rundle is the only designer who sells his collection directly after his show. It’s always a great hit and gets sold almost immediately but his collection consists of one-off pieces that can rarely be duplicated.”
Each fashion week nevertheless feels strongly that theirs has the potential to be the pan-African fashion week. Nigeria and South Africa often vie for this title; in fact the designer line-up in Lagos this year included some of SA’s top designers such as David Tlale; knitwear designer Laduma Ngoxolo’s MaXhosa label, and Shaldon Kopman, who founded Naked Ape.
Certainly, South Africa brings to the table two decades of experience, not just in women’s wear, but men’s wear, too. The independent biannual South African Menswear Week has just completed its fourth season, and SAFW has been sharpening its focus on men’s wear since 2014 by appending two days to its program dedicated solely to showing the best men’s wear labels.
Having always shown men’s wear as part of SAFW, Booyzen explained that “these collections were mostly bespoke and made to order. Today, although the designers can still only supply small quantities, we are confident that there are designers ready to sell quality garments to selected menswear boutiques, deliver on time and at the right price points.”
The platform has been growing. “Nine new labels joined SAFW Men in spring 2015, followed by the [fall] 2016 collections with 12 established designers. This has grown to 17 men’s wear designers for [fall] 2017.”
Booyzen cited Floyd Avenue — “he was the winner of the Scouting Menswear Competition supported by GQ last season” — as well as Ephymol, Afrikanswiss, Rogue and ToVch as the outstanding men’s wear designers this season.
Geographically, Nigeria and Ghana are more centrally located within the continent. Ghana admittedly still has a long way to go, Tamakloe said, while despite the lack of retail infrastructure, the Nigerian customer is possessed of a level of fashion sophistication not always evident in South Africa.
Akerele sees fashion as a key driver of growth for the Nigerian economy, which has, unfortunately, been heavily reliant on oil. “It can open doors for micro-industries such as retail, wholesale, manufacturing, merchandising, design and more to thrive.”
Thus, it becomes imperative to harness “the growth and promotion of creatives in the fashion industry by nurturing, fine-tuning, rewarding their skills and provide them with a solid platform [via LFDW] for achieving their goals.”
Apart from mentorship, education and capacity-building, Akerele believes that it is important to take advantage of opportunities for designers “to present their work before an audience that facilitates commerce.”
In this regard LDFW has spearheaded several initiatives, including participation in the International Fashion Showcase in London, featuring designers from the Fashion Focus Program (an incubator program for young designers), as well as Magic in Las Vegas. There are also networking workshops and apparel manufacturing courses running at the Human Capital Development Center in Apapa, Lagos, Nigeria “to reinvigorate the commercial potential of the manufacturing industry.”
In the end, Akerele declared, it’s a conversation that goes beyond fashion. “It’s about adding value to the industry, through creating various platforms that allow knowledge acquisition, skills development, access to market and showcasing talents to a networked global audience.”
The vision, ultimately, is “to create an ecosystem of thriving fashion businesses that can impact the Nigerian economic landscape.”