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How Fashion Entrepreneurs Are Surviving Crises in South Africa

Resourceful leaders are turning to creative contingency plans in the face of a national energy crisis, crumbling infrastructure, economic stagnation and social unrest.
Exotic leather accessories label Cape Cobra pivoted to designing their bags in house, having been a manufacturer of handbags for brands like Michael Kors.
South African exotic leather accessories company Cape Cobra has pivoted from producing bags for international brands like Michael Kors to designing its own private label. (Cape Cobra)

Key insights

  • The South African economy has stalled in recent years, creating a challenging backdrop for local fashion industry leaders and entrepreneurs.
  • Other problems gripping the nation include an energy crisis, soaring unemployment, currency volatility, corruption and a violent crime wave.
  • Resilient industry leaders are finding ways through the crises by focusing on contingency planning, vertical integration and value-added products.

When Justine Schafer was deciding on where to open the flagship store of her family’s exotic skins accessories label Cape Cobra, a hip shopping block on Cape Town’s Bree Street was the clear choice back in 2019. Passing trade was instrumental in helping the South African company pivot from manufacturing ostrich leather handbags and crocodile leather wallets for global brands like Michael Kors and Tiffany, to launching its own collections designed with the local consumer in mind.

The private label was a strategic move by the company to keep trading amid a growing pushback in the fashion industry about the use of exotic skins which translated to fewer orders from international brands. Armed with over 50 years of expertise and a strong reputation in their field, the Schafer family was accustomed to steering the business through choppy waters. But they never anticipated that keeping it alive would one day require playing part-time electrician as their street dealt with rolling blackouts.

“At the height of our manufacturing business, we had pretty much produced every bag made with exotic leather found at Bergdorf Goodman,” said Schafer, Cape Cobra’s creative director. “Today one of our biggest challenges is how do we keep regular operations running without something as basic as reliable electricity.”

Schafer is just one of many South African fashion leaders trying to scale their businesses despite the country’s crumbling infrastructure.


A model wearing a pashmina
South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi is leaning more on local production partners to reduce reliance on imported goods amid a port and supply chain crisis. (Trevor Stuurman)

Routine power cuts, known as load shedding, began in 2007 but have intensified in the last two years. Homes and businesses can now expect to go without electricity for up to 10 hours a day. Load shedding has resulted in the national economy losing approximately 300 billion rand ($16 billion) in 2022, according to estimates from banking group Investec. Last year, the energy crisis got so bad that President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a ‘state of disaster’. And last month, it caused the water taps to run dry in parts of Johannesburg for weeks during a heatwave.

On top of that, a ports and rail transport crisis centred around the country’s international trading hub, Durban, has been disrupting supply chains, increasing the cost of doing business and stoking inflation. Both crises are symptomatic of much wider economic, political and social malaise gripping the nation.

Company leaders must contend with a succession of policy failures by the government, corruption scandals and growing social unrest in the form of protests and violent crime. Those working with international partners also face “a different price everyday” due to currency volatility. Meanwhile, sky-high unemployment — reaching a rate of 33 percent, the worst in the world last year — has been described as a ticking time bomb for the country. Consumer confidence has plummeted.

The bleak picture is in stark contrast to the optimism of the early post-apartheid era and South Africa’s longstanding reputation as having the continent’s most advanced economy. The latest estimates for 2023 GDP growth are hovering around 0.6 percent. Economists in a recent Deloitte report have stated that the economy “remains under pressure going into 2024″, forecasting growth of just 1 percent this year.

‘Think Global, Act Local’

Despite the country’s many woes, the local fashion industry has outperformed the wider economy. In 2023, South Africa’s apparel and footwear market grew by 6 percent reaching $11 billion in sales, the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to data from Euromonitor International. In part, that can be attributed to the actions of many of the country’s industry leaders who have shown resilience, resourcefulness and global mindedness despite the many operational challenges they face.

South African photographer Trevor Stuurman infuses afro-futuristic elements to his portraiture.
South African photographer Trevor Stuurman infuses elements of Afrofuturism into his work for fashion brands and magazines. (Trevor Stuurman)

“If we didn’t think globally, we wouldn’t even have a creative designer fashion industry in South Africa,” said Lucilla Booyzen, founder and chief executive of South African Fashion Week. “We’d be dressmakers at best, and at worst, we’d be reliant on imported second-hand clothing or we wouldn’t have an industry at all.”

Thanks to their cosmopolitan outlook, a wave of South African fashion designers has gained international recognition in recent years. In 2019, womenswear designer Thebe Magugu made history when he became the first recipient of the LVMH Prize from the African continent. In the following years, designers Sindiso Khumalo and Lukhanyo Mdingi, both based in Cape Town, have nabbed awards from the luxury conglomerate.

Collectively, the three designers have built a loyal client base beyond the continent through North American and European retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, Net-a-Porter, Ssense and Dover Street Market which stock them. Others have opened their own stores outside the country, such Laduma Ngxokolo, founder and creative director of MaXhosa Africa, whose New York boutique is scheduled to bow next month.


The South African designers who have built strong relationships overseas have at least one thing in common: they all draw on the country’s rich history and cultures. This, say insiders, is advantageous when competing for the attention of international retailers, media and investors.

“The old guard of South African designers didn’t take our South African DNA and aesthetic and funnel it into their own labels. In a sense, they were South African designers without a South African point of view,” said Ngxokolo. On the other hand, “it’s always a risk… using South African design elements and creating a cultural aesthetic without it having the association of what tourists would buy at the airport when they arrive here.”

Platforming Homegrown Talent

Designers like Ngxokolo mostly have themselves to thank for the successes they’ve had in the global luxury market. But industry leaders like Booyzen have also played a key role, communicating on the world stage that garments with bold, bright colours which chronicle cultural touchpoints of South Africa are, in fact, worthy of the same attention afforded to luxury labels in Europe and North America.

We are here to build businesses, not egos.

Since founding South African Fashion Week in 1997, Booyzen has launched numerous accelerator programmes to scout for new talent in the country while mentoring and providing financial support to designers like Mdingi and Mmuso Maxwell. To exhibit at fashion week, she said, designers must have “a strong design identity that is rooted in South African culture,” and meet stockist criteria.

“We are here to build businesses, not egos,” Booyzen said, adding that her organisation covers the production, marketing and overhead costs of staging a runway show. “With this platform, we have strict rules for who can participate, and money shouldn’t be a hindrance. But talent and business acumen is what sets designers apart.”

Another prominent figure in the South African industry, Precious Moloi-Motsepe, founder of Africa Fashion International, has also platformed local brands, both at numerous domestic and international events in her company portfolio.

People who train the next generation of design talent are keen to ensure that more locally relevant brands with global potential emerge in the years ahead. Fashion educational institutions like Stadio and Durban University of Technology are intentionally integrating the country’s history, heritage and knowledge of indigenous craft into their curricula in an effort to “decolonise fashion education,” said Kiara Gounder, a professor at DUT’s department of fashion and textiles.

Conversations about decolonising the institution began with questions of representation. DUT thought it important to move away from only endorsing Western knowledge and design concepts and to situate homegrown South African craftsmanship in the context of haute couture.


Designer Laduma Ngxokolo has shown his garments which reflect Xhosa history and culture in Paris and New York.
South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo has shown garments reflecting the history and culture of Xhosa people in Paris and New York. (MaXhosa Africa)

“We had to privilege our ways of knowledge and craftsmanship, not just so we can connect to our heritage and see ourselves in what we create but also as a means of survival in a volatile industry for young designers,” said Gounder. “The truth is [few] authentic African stories have [been] told and this is a way for our students to stand out in a global market.”

Because cultural authenticity is resonating with global audiences, South African creatives are increasingly sought after to provide new perspectives.

Trevor Stuurman, a Johannesburg-based photographer and stylist, was tasked with creating the visuals for singer Beyoncé's “Black Is King” album and has been commissioned by publications like US Vogue and GQ South Africa for his distinctly African portraiture of high-profile subjects including former US President Barack Obama and Naomi Campbell.

“There has always been this idea that creativity from Africa is inferior,” said Stuurman, whose visual language is reminiscent of the aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism. “But no one had actually taken a look at contemporary Africa and how much vigour, excellence and innovation exists here. It’s a shame that they haven’t because everything [else] we see has been done before and it’s getting quite stale.”

Harnessing Built-In Resilience

While South Africa has no shortage of design talent, manufacturing presents a challenge for many fashion startups.

South Africa’s garment and textile industry reached its peak in the 1980s. Having once been a cornerstone of the economy, its presence was dwarfed by competition from China and other countries. The globalisation of the supply chain has made it nearly impossible to find a luxury garment that bears the “Made in South Africa” label. Savvy designers are trying to change that.

“South Africa is not a luxury manufacturing destination,” said Ngxokolo. “Each and every manufacturer that we come across is either a mass production chain or it [has] a small batch production infrastructure that manufactures for the low-end market. I’ve learnt that in order to get what you want [here] you just have to build it yourself.”

As a South African designer, you basically have to move mountains and make miracles happen in order to operate a business.

To bring all manufacturing in-house and control key areas of the brand’s value chain, MaXhosa Africa acquired a factory in Johannesburg in 2018 which houses digital printing machines. Today the company employs 260 people.

Lezanne Viviers, the creative director of Viviers Studio, a womenswear brand based in Johannesburg, says recent supply chain issues and power cuts have forced her to be creative. The latter has incentivised her to invest in solar power, which she says has made her manufacturing more sustainable.

“As a South African designer, you basically have to move mountains and make miracles happen in order to operate a business,” said Viviers, whose five-year old label is now a fixture on the Milan Fashion Week calendar. “But it is possible. It just requires agility and being a problem-solver.”

In the face of international supply chain disruptions, designers have started leaning more on domestic partners. To supplement his manufacturing footprint in Italy and Turkey, Mdingi has partnered with Cape Town-based NGO Philani that specialises in hand weaving and printing and Johannesburg-listed retail stalwart The Foschini Group for cutting, sewing and tailoring expertise.

“If you have an international brand and you’re working with international suppliers, things aren’t always as affordable as you would like them to be, especially when the exchange rate keeps fluctuating,” said Mdingi, referring to the rand’s depreciation against key currencies like the dollar. “These expenses eat away at your margins, impact your pricing and hinder your ability to be profitable.”

Finding New Ways to Add Value

One area of the South African fashion industry that has suffered more than most is the local media sector. The global print media decline of the last 15 years been felt acutely in the publishing houses of Cape Town and Johannesburg as local conditions made an already challenging market environment even harder.

The last five years have seen the shuttering of Associated Media Publishing, the parent of the South African editions of Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, Caxton Media’s magazine arm and Khanyi Dhlomo’s publishing company Ndalo Media, which had acquired the local license to publish Elle magazine.

The issue that plagued South Africa’s magazine industry was having “too many titles competing for few eyeballs,” according to Kelly Fung, the former editor-in-chief of Elle South Africa. “South African magazines were struggling with differentiation, and you’d see the same personality on the cover and the same clothes across five publications.”

South Africa's premature print media apocalypse forced executives and editors to pivot to digital media and find more reliable revenue streams.
The local edition of Glamour is one of the few fashion magazines left in South Africa following the collapse of several publishers. (Glamour South Africa)

The few executives and editors who have survived the cull are putting plans in place to ensure the survival of their publications.

“Our publications have only recently pivoted to digital-first journalism, but we are recognising that we cannot stay still,” conceded Nontando Mposo, editor-in-chief of Glamour South Africa. “We have to be constantly innovating so we can reach our audiences.”

The South African iteration of the Condé Nast title no longer exclusively relies on advertising to generate revenue. It has expanded to the events space and has launched exclusive clubs designed to give readers a behind-the-scenes peek into the South African fashion industry.

The publication also made a shift from mostly syndicating content from the US or UK editions to producing local content covering the country’s growing fashion and entertainment industries. “The magazine is becoming a fashion staple for readers across the continent [beyond just South Africa],” said Mposo, noting that a recent cover featured Amapiano singer Tyla who has an increasingly pan-African fanbase.

Despite the changes having the desired effect of “digital readership ticking up”, according to Mposo, print circulation for Glamour South Africa declined 32 percent in the fourth quarter of 2023 compared to like-for-like figures in 2022, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa.

Paradoxically, the challenging media market has created opportunities for entrepreneurs like David Cohen, chief executive of Superbalist, a multi-brand e-commerce platform selling brands such as Calvin Klein and Nike, who recruited fashion editors like Fung from the declining magazine industry to create branded content for the retailer’s online publication. Interestingly, Fung has since been poached by Arc Store, South Africa’s answer to Sephora, as the local beauty retailer’s head of marketing.

But operating an international e-commerce business in South Africa comes with its own set of challenges. Last year, the company secured a deal with H&M to exclusively operate the fast fashion giant’s e-commerce platform in the country but, when the ports are in turmoil and no imported goods can arrive, Cohen and his team had to resort to heavily discounting out-of-season merchandise which ate away at the bottom line.

This has led the company to invest more resources and marketing into the private label brands Cohen launched in 2019. Apparel from Superbalist’s own brands is designed in-house and 80 percent of the garments are produced in the company’s manufacturing plant that it acquired in 2022.

“The real opportunity exists when you’re not just a department store offering logistics and customer service for other brands, but you’re creating equity for your own,” said Cohen. “[The private label brands] have created something of a moat for us … it de-risks us against global supply chain shocks and the current port crises in South Africa.”

Despite circumventing the ports crisis, Superbalist is not immune to a cost-of-living crisis fuelled by high inflation and routine power outages that force consumers to pay high costs for basic needs like food and electricity. This has opened a gap for low-cost China-founded rivals like Shein and Temu to swoop in and woo the South African consumer with less discretionary income to spend on clothing.

“It’s definitely tough,” said Cohen. “But we hope to keep our customers coming back because of our unique offering. We reflect them and hopefully we reflect South Africa.”

Further Reading

Turning the Focus Back on South Africa

Executives need to keep a close eye on the South African fashion market as it could be poised for a rebound after years in the doldrums. Newly installed president Cyril Ramaphosa has a tall order but industry leaders are emboldened.

In South Africa, More Evolution than Revolution

A year after the death of Nelson Mandela and two decades since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s fashion market holds up a skewed mirror to its vibrant and incredibly complex society.

About the author
Yola Mzizi
Yola Mzizi

Yola Mzizi is the Editorial Apprentice at The Business of Fashion (BoF). She is based in New York and provides operational support to the New York team and writes features for BoF and The Business of Beauty.

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