JOHANNESBURG — The South African fashion industry is gaining momentum, driven by a proliferation of designers and multibrand boutiques that carry the collections.
The growth was evident at the Fashion Week 2011 Summer Collections at Shine Studios here earlier this month, which featured the designs of industry veterans such as Clive Rundle, Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee, Karen Ter Morshuizen of Lunar and Palesa Mokubung of Mantsho, to name a few, alongside relative newcomers such as Vesselina Pentcheva, Elaine du Plessis of Christopher Strong, the Smarteez collective from Soweto and the duo behind the label Kottin & Twille.
Lucilla Booyzen, founder and director of SA Fashion Week, now on its 15th year, has worked hard to develop a strong buyer culture within South Africa. “What we call the creative fashion design industry can only grow if the designs are available for the consumer to buy,” she pointed out.
She stressed that it was still a relatively young industry. “Remember, there were really no boutiques before. But little by little, multibrand boutiques and fashion emporiums have begun to proliferate. Now we have stores like Just, GG Boutique, Urban Rose, Sugar and Spice, Friends with Jenny and MeMeMe all over the country, not to mention established designers who have successfully struck out on their own — David Tlale, Tiaan Nagel, Lunar, Superella.”
New on the local retail scene is Hanneli Rupert, who opened Merchants on Long in Cape Town last year. A showcase for chic, but not overtly ethnic, high-end African clothing, accessories, fragrances, jewelry and skin care, Merchants on Long has been influential in proving that African design can be sophisticated and marketable. Commenting on SA Fashion Week, Rupert said, “I did see some very strong collections, and I will definitely be placing some orders.”
She cited Black Coffee and Christopher Strong among the collections that left a positive impression. “There was to me a very high-end European standard of production and design that was not necessarily ethnic, and I like that,” said Rupert.
Emma Jordan, editor of the local online fashion portal iFashion, summed up SA Fashion aptly when she said that “for the first time in along time there was a real development of an understanding of the South African aesthetic,” pointing to the “organic palettes (burnt oranges, earthy greens) that ran though old and new guard alike.”
South African fashion design also left a positive impression on Anthropologie co-founder Linda Trau, who now has her own design studio creating collections for the retailer and its sister Urban Outfitters. She did not attend the shows but visited the country earlier this year and placed a trial order of $224,000 with various crafters producing handmade fashion accessories. The products will be in stores across the U.S. in May-June.
“The craft in South Africa is wonderful,” said Trau, who also has a line called Zuba Africa sourced from Rwanda. “There is great potential for export, and I have many ideas, beginning with an exclusive trade show in New York and then Europe.”
While she observed that the fashion end needs development and curating, she “loved the passion of the designers and would be happy to see them unfold.”
Booyzen said of the Anthropologie order, “I think it’s a huge step forward for us, and paves the way for us to get into the global market.”
Also setting her sights globally is Lunar’s Ter Morshuizen, whose understated, fluid designs in neutral tones and eco-conscious yet luxurious fabrics have attracted stores in Paris and London. She also will soon have an agent for her line in the U.S. She stressed that because all production is done on-site, output will always be small, and it was important to find a retail partner overseas that understood these constraints. “We will never be a mass producer of garments,” she said.
The collection she showed during SA Fashion Week was something of a departure. While her usual polished signature was evident, she chose a brighter, fresher palette of colors — varying shades of blues, greens and yellows among them. Her inspiration, she said, came from a local organic luxury skin care range named Savane, that she has just begun to carry at her boutique. “There was just something very timely about the range, and how it fit in with our own natural ethos. It was a complete breath of fresh air for us. It’s time for the world to be a little happier.”