South Africa | Searching for Structures, Systems and Policies

Abigail Betz S/S 09, courtesy of Sanlam Fashion SA Week

Abigail Betz S/S 09, courtesy of Sanlam South Africa Fashion Week by Ivan Naude

In our latest BoF feature on South African fashion, we expose the hurdles that will need to be addressed for the country to take its place on the global fashion circuit. For now, the local scene appears to lack the necessary coordination and structure upon which a sustainable fashion industry can be built.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa The past eight years have seen South Africa’s thirst for a culture of fashion quenched by the continuing development of a local fashion industry, accelerated by the arrival of international luxury brands on the doorsteps of the country’s emerging nouveau riche market, also known colloquially as ‘The Black Diamonds.’ It is in this ripe environment that South African Fashion Week (SAFW) and African Fashion International (AFI) have been attempting to develop home-grown South African fashion talent.

In a recent BoF article on the Indian fashion market, the proliferation of indigenous fashion weeks was described as one of the key issues holding the industry back. And, although South Africa is a unique case study of fashion in developing nations, there are some astounding similarities to India’s fashion industry. And, as is the case in India, both the government and the corporate sector are staunch supporters the industry. But, the question remains. Is this uncoordinated effort is helping or hindering the local fashion scene?

SAFW has always enjoyed the endorsement of the South African government and, in 2006, one of South Africa’s oldest financial services companies, Sanlam officially became the headline sponsor, effectively changing the name to Sanlam South African Fashion Week, or SSAFW. African Fashion International (AFI), on the other hand, is sponsored by companies like Audi, Virgin Mobile and MTN, the local mobile telephone company. Launched in 2006, AFI hosts four different fashion weeks in three different cities around the country, and later this year AFI will hold Africa Fashion Week, during the FIFA Confederations Cup, in Johannesburg.

Seemingly, these companies are motivated by the good intentions of supporting the indigenous fashion industry. So, is it really such a bad thing that South Africa has a total of seven fashion weeks? This has been a point of contention for many involved in the growth of the industry. Some argue that this stimulates competition, while others insist that it only serves to stunt the growth of the industry because efforts are diffused across a series of small-scale events and nobody is making serious money. And, while the existence of different fashion weeks has certainly created competition and further developed of the industry, it’s questionable whether this is really what South Africa fashion needs today.

However, there are some steps in a promising direction. SSAFW has always strongly leaned towards being a developmental organisation rather than a profit-motivated one. In 2004, it launched The Fashion Fusion Project, an initiative that saw designers collaborating with craft workers from all over South Africa to stimulate trade and job creation in impoverished regions. Once a year, SSAFW and the Department of Arts and Culture host The SSAFW Seminars, to educate students, designers and other industry members through a series of workshops and seminars delivered by experienced fashio professionals. This year’s seminars at the SSAFW Summer 09/10 Collections included presentations on Editing your Collection, The Importance of Watching Trends, Quality Assurance, The Importance of Social Media and a presentation by Vogue CFDA 2008 Award runner-up, Albertus Swanepoel. AFI also offers seasonal informations sessions addressing topics such as interpreting international fashion trends.

The overall result of South African fashion’s fragmentation is not entirely bad. But, it has led to confusion amongst designers, potential stakeholders, and consumer markets about the way forward. And, most importantly, it has prevented the cohesive expansion of an industry that’s worth 38 billion rand (about $4.3 billion) and which accounts for 20 percent of the total formal sector employment in South Africa. So, rather than focusing only on showcasing the country’s design talent, more needs to be done with regards to structures, systems and policies upon which a real industry can be built.

Milisuthando Bongela is a journalist, trend observer and fashion commentator based in Johannesburg.

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  1. As someone who has spent four years in Cape Town, South Africa and observed the fashion industry from inside I can say that fragmentation and an exhausting marathon of fashion weeks does hinder international positioning of South African fashion. The limited resources available are being spent on local fashion initiatives rather than developing a unifying vision to present the industry internationally. The organisers are protectively posessive about their events and bringing industry players and decision makers together is a daunting task. Cape Town Fashion Council established in 2006 as the first representative body for the fashion industry in South Africa has led the way in neutrality and inclusivity is currently spearheading the efforts to establish South African national fashion council with support of the DTI ( Department of trade and Industry). But it seems to be a journey of one thousand miles. When will this materialise? There is no definitive answer… As for the local young talent, rather than figuring out which camp/ alliance to join, they need clear guidance, practical support and more international exposure