The fabric of society needs underpinning
Shweshwe is synonymous with African couture but the industry is under threat from counterfeits.
There are large panels of brown paper cut into arcs on Bongiwe Walaza's wide wooden desk. A sturdy pair of sewing scissors rests between the patterns.
Walaza moves with an easy grace. She wears large silver hoop earrings, chunky silver jewellery and a simple flowing black dress held loosely around the waist with a thin black studded belt.
She is the queen of shweshwe design, using the starched printed cotton that has become synonymous with African-inspired couture.
"Every time I look at shweshwe fabrics, they inspire me, probably because I'm from a Xhosa background where it is used a lot for ma-khoti [new brides]," says Walaza, who is from the Eastern Cape village of Mqanduli.
The fabric — also known in Sesotho as seshoeshoe, after the Basotho King Moshoeshoe for whom many believed it was named — was once used to create simple traditional dresses, but has now become part of a mass fashion movement, largely thanks to Walaza.
The streets surrounding Jo'burg CBD's Fashion Kapitol, opposite which Walaza's studio is based, house shop after shop displaying shweshwe dresses, and many of the people milling around them wear designs crafted of the fabric.
But although one might expect the popularity of the iconic material to bolster the ailing textile industry in the country, producers from overseas have tapped into the fabric's popularity and are eroding the local market with counterfeit products.
Who ‘owns' shweshwe?
The now distinctly African fabric has its roots in Europe. It was introduced to the South Africans by German immigrants in the mid-1800s and locals began using the white-patterned fabric in its rich earthy colours to make dresses and skirts.
In 1992, South African textile company Da Gama bought trademark rights from a United Kingdom company to produce the heavy cotton designs locally.
It imported large patterned copper rollers that were used to impress designs on the material, which was washed with weak acid to produce its intricate white patterns.
Nowadays, Da Gama registers its designs under various trademarks in each of the countries it trades. Each of its brands, including its most popular brand, Three Cats, is recognised by the logo etched on every roll of fabric.
"Da Gama is the only original shweshwe manufacturer — not just in this country, but in the world," said Anwar Vahed, sales manager of the company's home-sewing division.
But this heavily guarded bastion of local craftsmanship is under threat from cheap imports, which sell at about half the price of the original.
Vahed estimates that Da Gama has lost about 10% of its market to counterfeit shweshwe material imported from China and Pakistan since South Africa came out of isolation, and the company has had to dock its number of factory workers from 3 000 to 600 over the period.
Rees Mann, co-founder of Joburg's Fashion Kapitol noted the growing trend. "They copy their prints 100% and transfer it to polycotton material.
Just as apartheid destroyed the Afrocentricity in our fashion industry, so the Chinese are destroying what's left, which is shweshwe," said Mann. "It's virtually the theft of South African heritage."
‘Shweshwe' vs shweshwe
Despite the increasing availability of the counterfeit, there is a vast difference between the original material and its imitations, said Vahed.
Da Gama's trademark shweshwe combines a specific base cloth, colours, design, a 90cm width and a starchy finish, which was originally used to prevent the fabric from damage during long voyages from Europe.
"If you remove even one element of the product, it doesn't make up the brand," said Vahed. "If, for example, the starchy finish is taken away from the cloth, customers don't even recognise the brand."
But according to Walaza, who uses Da Gama products extensively and is sponsored by the company for some of her shows, certain changes to the brand would be welcome.
"Their machines can only make 90cm-wide fabric, so I have to use about 10m per dress because it is so narrow," she said. "I want it wider but they can't do it."
And having to wash the fabric to remove the starch is difficult and costly, said Walaza.
Considering another product
Walaza said that, although she would never switch to a polyester cotton blend, she would consider using another product.
"I would love to be loyal to Da Gama — it is my favourite — but if they can't meet my needs and someone else can, I'll definitely go for them." Nevertheless, said Walaza, the Da Gama brand had a uniqueness that none of the counterfeits bore.
Da Gama shweshwe currently sells at about R50 a metre. The counterfeit products sell for about half the amount, and are of varying quality.
Vahed said that Da Gama could not compete with the prices of the imports. "A fake dress comes in at R180 to R200, whereas our seamstresses can't even manufacture at cost for that amount," he said.
Da Gama has enlisted the help of the police and customs and excise personnel to try to stamp out the counterfeit trade, but the extent of the problem is unmanageable, said Vahed.
"They raid a shop one day and the next couple of days [the fake products] are back there," he said. "It's mind-boggling."
The government should implement higher import tariffs to protect local textile production, he said.
According to Mann, the counterfeit shweshwe market threatens the future of the local textile industry.
"We can't be competitive on the mass production side of things; we haven't got the volume or the technology," he said. "The only way the clothing industry is going to survive in South Africa is in niche markets. If that is going to be attacked as well, it leaves us with nothing."
The government should follow the example of the Nigerian textile industry, which favours small operations and uses very little imported fabric, he said. A culture that takes pride in local design and production is needed to underpin that.
"If you look at Nigeria, it's a huge industry and a very proudly Nigerian one. The Chinese wouldn't be allowed into there," said Mann. "But Jo'burg is a fake city. You can buy anything fake in Jo'burg."
‘You can't outdo the original'
Not only does the fabric that gives Bongiwe Walaza's garments their unique appeal face counterfeiting, but so do her designs.
"Besides the Chinese, I'm talking about local dressmakers and shop owners. They see my designs at South African Fashion Week, and make their own. I see my designs in their shop windows," said Walaza.
The rip-off artists reproduce her designs but "economise", said Walaza, using inferior fabric and missing a step here or there.
Legally, there is little that can be done to protect Walaza, who works in an industry fraught with wrangles over the appropriation of intellectual property.
"My consolation is that this is a God-given idea. No one can take it away from me."
Although Walaza has lost some customers to counterfeits, she has gained new ones. Her customer base has gone international and people from London, the United States, Senegal and Italy have shown interest.
"I don't think people will ever be able to outdo the original."