A look from Tokyo James at SAMW

CAPE TOWN — South African Men’s Wear Week opened its fifth season on a high with a new title sponsor, Lexus, whose revised positioning of “Experience Amazing” made the partnership a compelling fit, according to SAMW cofounder Simon Deiner.

“We’ve always positioned the SA Men’s Wear Week as an all-inclusive event, versus an off-limits fashion week, by creating spaces that followers of fashion can attend and hopefully catch a show, versus strictly controlled doors,” he said. “I think this more lifestyle aspect that runs alongside the serious media/buyer business-to-business core was quite attractive as it brings a diverse range of really good consumers to the event, which appealed to Lexus.”

SAMW heralded many firsts this season. The four-day event last month began with an offsite show, FMBCJ by Craig Jacobs, bowing at Cape Town luxury emporium Merchants on Long, followed by a cross-continental design collaboration featuring Jacobs and Nigerian designer Babatunde Oyeyemi of the urban streetwear label Maxivive and diffusion label MXVV.

“Babatunde approached me a few months ago, mentioning that he thought my sports-luxe aesthetic fitted in with his sub-brand MXVV and was wondering if I would be interested in collaboration,” explained Jacobs. “As designers, we often work in a vacuum, and I thought this would be a great chance to move out of the square, challenge myself and share ideas. I love what Babatunde is doing in Nigeria — his ability to meld traditions such as Adire resist dye techniques with modern styling also fits smoothly with my approach to create a modern African aesthetic.”

Oyeyemi said the collection was inspired by the dying art of Moroccan storytelling, which featured “ponchos with hoods and T-shirts made from the hand-print and dyed indigo textile. Storytellers’ heads have the same interwoven rope laces as the suit jackets and bomber jackets and only the front and back panel of a traditional jumper and T-shirt are retained.”

The other highlight of SAMW was the Jahnkoy show on the last day. The New York-based Russian designer participated in SAMW under the auspices of activewear brand Puma. A Parsons The New School for Design alumnae, Maria Jahnkoy chose to show her graduation collection, The Displaced. “It was shown more as an art form to spread the message [‘the necessity for change through a crafting revolution’],” she said. “Each piece was created as a unique piece of work, it has not been reproduced to sell at the moment. The garments that were made out of Puma apparel were created as a proposal on how we can weave advanced modern technology with citywear and traditional craftsmanship, to create a product that will be modern and that still develops and fosters hand skills and artisanal tradition.”

Notably absent from this season’s SAMW was perennial favorite Chu Suwannapha, who designs under the label Chulaap while keeping his day job as a fashion editor. Nevertheless, buyers cited Rich Mnisi, Nicholas Coutts, ALC, Tokyo James and Unknown Union, in addition to Craig Jacobs and Babatunde, among the standouts this season.

Allana Finley, specialist apparel placement agent for Afara, which in turn services clients such as Oxosi.com, lauded Naked Ape for showing “an interesting position on recycling past collections. His ‘Borrow Borrow’ collection was a blend of fabrics he had used in past seasons and presented a patchwork of fabric swatches that, if you’ve been following him, you would recognize.”

Finley added that it was important “to look for items that are original and ahead of the trend. Some designers on the continent do themselves an injustice by being ‘on trend,’ which is actually what buyers have already bought. I feel they should be original and able to forecast trends with their collections.”

Clouds Drummond and Duncan Pape, representing the upmarket lifestyle center Langaro, which carries fashion, said that they would be “cherry-picking pieces as opposed to buying full collections as designers still don’t seem to understand the golden thread which needs to run through a collection.”

Like the Langaro man — who was described by Drummond and Pape as “fit, well-traveled, owns his own business or sits on the management team of large businesses” — the Merchants on Long clientele consists of “sophisticated, ethical and stylish patrons who believe in the outstanding quality and unique charm of African fashion,” according to retail manager Sumendra Chetty. The store has carried men’s wear from its inception in 2010, including MaXhosa by Laduma, Laurence Airline, Fundudzi by Craig Jacobs, Ohema Ohene, Terminal, Chulaap by Chu Suwaanapha, SAWA, Babatunde and Oliberte.

Buyers agreed that certain brands have the potential to go global. “SA designers should identify the man they’re designing for, then dress him,” as opposed to designing for “large crowd appeal,” stated Drummond and Pape. Chulaap is an obvious contender, as is Adriaan Kuiters, who “totally gets it. His personal line is distinctively different from the AKJP collection. Both have such a unique and strong identity that you’ll look at a garment and immediately envision the man wearing it. The same principle applies to Craig Port, Tokyo James and Nguni Shades.”

Jahnkoy is already an international label, they acknowledged.

For Chetty, MaXhosa by Laduma Ngxokolo is an example of a homegrown brand that has excelled in a global market without sacrificing sustainability. “The challenge, with our fashion industry, however, is getting the message across — sustainable and ethical fashion is always going to effectively cost more than fast fashion. Competing with fast fashion is difficult, but the customer’s knowledge of fashion politics is growing every day and one day perhaps it will become a norm to buy ethical products.”

Price remains a tricky issue, even with the better-known designers. “It’s a Catch-22 really,” admitted Finley. “If a designer isn’t getting the orders that help them scale, then there is no way they are able to price competitively. The smaller the quantities, the more expensive the garment so the designer needs the consumer to believe in and help their brand grow. But one designer who seems to be getting it right is Craig Jacobs [Fundudzi Man or FMBCJ] with his affordable, ethical fashion pieces.”

Added Chetty, “Of course SA designer clothing will come in at a higher price point than clothing made off a mass production system overseas. The clientele that we garner generally do not hesitate to purchase SA designer men’s wear; therefore it has a lot to do with how discerning the customer is.”

Taking into account the inherent challenges, Deiner said the key thing to realize is that “these are small and emerging businesses, which each season is about growing the labels in various ways, such as targeting new customers, growing the presence and awareness and most importantly in the long run becoming a larger, more profitable business that leads to job creation/employment.”

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