April marks the beginning of fall in the Southern Hemisphere, and in terms of fashion in South Africa, the month began with a celebration of emerging talent and individual style via South African Fashion Week, peaked with the third annual Mercedes-Benz Bokeh South Africa International Fashion Film Festival, which included an homage to the photographer Rankin, and then erupted with a copycat scandal once again involving Gavin Rajah, one of the country’s most prominent designers.
In the last three years, Rajah, who shows at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Cape Town organized by SAFW rival African Fashion International, has been accused of copying designs by the likes of Zuhair Murad and Self-Portrait. He has always vigorously denied such accusations, even once inviting journalists into his studio in an effort to prove that his design process yielded creations that were independent of whatever Murad might have shown a season or two before Rajah.
This time a former collaborator, New York-based designer Chelsea Liu — the two partnered last year to launch a bridal collection, to much fanfare — accused Rajah via Facebook of stealing “my pictures and designs for his interview [in the Qatari magazine Harayer].” Rajah reportedly passed off two of Liu’s designs as his own.
Liu ended her post with a challenge: “Feel free to sue me. I’m ready to play. You are ready to play. Let’s play.”
Rajah denied the accusations and retaliated via e-mail to Liu’s husband Marc Janke threatening to sue for cyberbullying, among other things, as well as to report her to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, hinting that her green card could be revoked.
“There are other legal methods of recourse and/or forms of discussion but as usual Chelsea would prefer her irrational behavior,” wrote Rajah.
While threats and lawsuits were flying all over the place, the happy union of fashion and film was being highlighted at the Mercedes-Benz Bokeh South Africa International Fashion Film Festival held in the new Aquarium along Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.
This year’s theme was “Bespoke,” with instructions to contenders to present “in a fashion film no longer than two minutes 30 seconds, ideas, feelings and inspirations that are conjured up by the bespoke nature of our [Mercedes-Benz] vehicles.”
More than 500 fashion film submissions from around the world were whittled down to 12 finalists. Edward and Ash Winter of Winterstone Productions in Los Angeles won the grand prize of $10,000 — the Mercedes-Benz Award — for their submission, also titled, “Bespoke.”
Rankin, who formed part of the festival’s judging panel, was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the art of the fashion film.
Festival founder and filmmaker Adrian Lazarus stated that with the event growing in stature every year, “we are pushing the boundaries of fashion branding and hopefully Cape Town will become the global destination for the production of these films in the near future, as we have a wealth of talent, the passion, the infrastructure and local support right on our doorstep.”
Discovering and nurturing talent and preparing them for the challenging business that is fashion has always been the objective of SAFW.
The SAFW 2016 Spring Collections were shown over a weeklong period that included a trade event open to buyers and media, and a pop-up shop with the current season’s offerings available to the general public at the Hyde Park Corner shopping center in Johannesburg.
After several years showing at the Crowne Plaze Hotel in nearby Rosebank, SAFW decamped to The Park, a new venue within the mall. As the pioneering fashion week platform in South Africa, SAFW has partnered with many sponsors over the last two decades to showcase emerging talent, including Elle Magazine, Renault and, since 2012, Lufthansa.
The Lufthansa 1st Best Collections debuted in 2013, and this year’s winner was Lesley Whitter, who designs the Heart & Heritage range, a label that was launched in 2015. The runner-up was Lumin by James Barrett-Poulsen and Amy Liu.
Whitter’s inspiration was the German word “Fernweh,” which means “to crave and dream about travel.” This concept, she said, informed her “very soft and dreamy color palette. I wanted my customer to be able to pack the entire collection into a suitcase and fly anywhere tomorrow.”
A judge at the competition, Annette Pringle, who runs the showroom The Fashion Agent, noted that “Heart & Heritage presented a well-rounded romantic travel collection. The execution was perfectly done for an up-and-coming designer, lines and proportions very charming and flattering, with a bit of boho, too, which is on-trend.”
Another judge, Kelly Fung, fashion and beauty director of Marie-Claire South Africa, said that Heart & Heritage “showed a lot of heart. The range comprises intrinsically feminine dresses, shorts, and draped tops fit for a summer holiday. While the brand is not about high-end design and complicated construction, what did stand out, however, was a definite understanding of her customer. She showed a sound, long-term business plan along with her romantic, for-every-occasion collection and overall professionalism in her approach to fashion as business, as well as in her polished presentation of her collection.”
Whitter said her win provided great exposure for her brand. “I think the key factor which made me stand out as a winner is that I am the founder of Convoy in Johannesburg, which is a retail concept where designers share the risks and costs involved in running a store.”
Convoy is located at The Bamboo Centre in the funky suburb of Melville; Heart & Heritage shares space with five other designers.
As the winner of the competition, Whitter will be flown to Berlin via Lufthansa Airlines to attend Berlin Fashion Week in June.