Sunday, 31 August 2014

Amateurs in a world of Fashion

With all the excitement that oozed its way through Fashion Week a few weeks ago, I can’t help but to ask myself and the public this question: is the South African Fashion scene ready to be a force to be reckoned with?

We’re all familiar with the top of the litter box. These Italian-, French- and American-bred designer labels share the same clean quality in workmanship and aesthetic appeal. Every brand has a distinct way of styling and artistic approach to one of the world’s most controversial topics – fashion, duh. 

A lot of world-famous designer labels have intricate, century-old histories that could be one of the reasons for their success. Take Chanel for example. She started her career in 1910, after opening a boutique on 21 rue Cambon in Paris. Fast-forward to 2014 where Chanel is one of the world’s most famous fashion brands in the game.   

When you ask someone to name a designer brand, names like DKNY and Louis Vuitton immediately come to mind. Unless you’re carefully tuned in with SA’s fashion scene you’d have no idea who Ernest Mahomane or Stefania Morland is. The first time I’ve heard of Danielle Margaux, is when I passed her studio in Bird Street, Stellenbosch, even though I live in Stellenbosch. 

Why is it that we put another country’s fashion on such a pedestal, and not our own? As I collect my thoughts, I wonder, why is it that our fashion industry is not a part of the international standard? Why do we struggle? Even in our own country, our top designers go unknown due to the popularity of designer labels abroad.

The South African fashion industry is still a new-born in comparison to most of the world’s fashion meccas. Our very first fashion week ignited 16 years ago when Lucilla Booyzen noticed this gap in the market. New York City had their first fashion week way back in 1943. So, yes, we still have a lot to learn. Let me put it like this; if it were to take part in an Olympiad en vogue, South Africa wouldn’t finish first.

Before the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Cape Town a month ago, I had no idea who half, the designers were. It may be due to a lack of knowledge, don’t get me wrong. However with that said, media, including television, internet and magazines, seem to bombard us with international designer brands that are halfway around the world.

It results in a community where we seem to worship unreachable and unaffordable fashion. Hey, I’m also amazed by the masterfully created art we see through media, I just think it overpowers any chance for South African designers to shine in their own way.

Recently, one of South Africa’s top fashion designers, Gavin Rajah, has allegedly copied one of Zuhair Murad dresses from his SS 2013 collection. Rajah denies this statement however, as he found any and all inspiration from the Japanese culture. Highly esteemed Gert-Johan Coetzee was told to have copied a Michael Costello design, worn by Bey at the Grammys this year. As social media demands an explanation, I can’t help thinking whether South African Fashion isn’t merely regurgitation from what we see on Fashion TV? 

The South African Fashion scene can’t compete at this stage in time to the lead in competition from international popularity. We all know a Chanel Bag when we see one. It’s quite easy to identify a one-of-a-kind Elie Saab dress. I dare to go so far as recognising a pure Versace creation – ergo, Jennifer Lopez. I just cannot say the same for South Africa.

This international takeover is closer to home than we think. With Forever 21 airing to open its doors, yet another chain store occupies our attention. It joins the likes of Zara, Topshop, and soon, H&M. Of course, it’s all glitz and glam for us consumers. But behind the scenes it’s attacking our local brands. 

According to Lauren Avgitidis, brand manager of TopShop and Topman SA, South African Consumers have become increasingly aware of international brands, leading to an astute and trend-focused consumer. She further states that this is also the reason for international interest in our vibrant soil. Because we received a taste of these foreign brands, we’ve become hungry for all the latest trends, straight from The US, UK, and more. This proves to become more and more competition for the proudly South African brands in a sea of foreignism.

As a result, young up-and-coming designers will have some difficulty getting their feet in a door or two. Ntinthi Nteta – a top South African blogger – states that the presence of foreign brands has a negative outcome for independent South African designers. "It's really not a choice between Mr Price and a foreign competitor. It's a choice between Topshop and a local small-scale designer. If someone is able to spend 1,000 ZAR on a basic dress from Topshop, they are also able to spend that on a local designer." South African consumers are simply not spending that much money on local brands or designers.

How can wishful designers compete with either multi-million dollar fashion labels or invasive foreign brands that local boutiques cannot begin to compete with? It’s astounding and glorious to have a passion for all things fashion, but on a realistic view, one has to make a living for oneself, and the views for a living in fashion designs – in South Africa – seems to dim like theatre lights.

So what do we have to look forward to - an increase of international domination and the decrease of dreams for a local fashion industry? In frightens me to have to think our local talent struggles so much. Let’s not forget that there are some designers, who achieve greatness abroad, but we can argue that it’s nothing compared to the big leagues.

Hey, we aren’t South Africans for nothing. I think that somehow, our fashion industry will one day be able to dominate a rich and vibrant culture as ours. We’re unique and diverse, and that will probably be the factor that puts us above the rest. 

Anelisa Mangcu - SA blogger 

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