Art and Design

Wraps come off fashion week's burgeoning talent

Sandiso Ngubane

Some stalwarts again impressed at the Mercedes Benz Cape Town Fashion Week – but it was the young designers who got people talking.

A Gavin Rajah design at this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Cape Town at the International Convention Centre. (Supplied)

Unlike most designers, the grande dame of South African fashion, Marianne Fassler, did not emerge from backstage after her show, which opened this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Cape Town at the International Convention Centre on Thursday last week.

She was seated in the front row next to her husband and, at the end of the show, joined the models to dance down the runway following the final walk through.

Fassler evoked a dream summer holiday on a beautiful African coast with a mélange of clashing prints and, at times, panels of light, transparent fabric. The accessories – earrings and shoes – and the shredded hems of some of her dresses and skirts point to a Zulu inspiration, but her collection is far more diverse than this might suggest. 

“I have always loved disintegration at the hemline because I just love the way the Shembe wear skirts,” she said after the show, adding that “re-engineering” fabric is something that has become part of her signature. “Our work is very often informed by upcycling and scraps of fabric. With this collection, specifically, we started out with prints, but then we decided to disintegrate the prints and spread it over tulle so, in the end, you don’t really recognise what the prints were.”

Designer Marianne Fassler on the runway.

Japan – the new and the old
Another of the local industry’s most recognisable and respected names, Gavin Rajah, showed a collection that evoked Japonism. Large Ogi hand fans hung from the ceiling above the runway and the models wore geisha-inspired make-up and the conical traditional kasa hats.

Craftsmanship alone makes Rajah’s work worth sitting on those fashion week seats for the long time that his shows often take. His inspiration, Japanese woodblock prints, served as a metaphor for the collection – an abundantly luxurious couture collection with meticulous attention paid to detail.

But the praise Rajah’s collection received was met almost immediately by disappointment after it emerged post-fashion week that one of the dresses presented was astonishingly similar to one that appeared in Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad’s 2013 resort collection.

In a written statement, Rajah said he would never knowingly plagiarise the work of another designer as this would be career suicide. ‘‘I did not copy Mr Zuhair Murad’s design, my design is my own original creation inspired by Japanese woodblock printing. The Japanese inspired theme is visible through the entire collection. 

“I have created the design independently from inspiration sourced by Japanese themes, ranging from the rising sun to Japanese fans. The entire design process has been my own efforts in labour.” The sheer dress with beaded detail became the subject of much talk on social media after Sim Tshabalala, a Durban businessperson known for his involvement in raising the profile of that city’s fashion industry, posted a mash-up picture of both Murad and Rajah’s dresses.

Stefania Morland also played with the Japanese influence, albeit from a more contemporary perspective – more Harajuku than kimono.

A candy pop approach to the Amish aesthetic
Anisa Mpungwe’s label, Loin Cloth & Ashes, has become one of the favourites of fashion week – thanks to the designer’s ability to keep delivering fresh, exciting collections.

This year’s range drew from the simplicity and conservatism of Amish dress, injected with the jubilance of an urban African disposition. Stripes, dots and candy colours dominated, and models walked out wearing re-imagined Amish headwear that often matched the colours or prints of the looks they wore.

“The term we were working with initially was ghetto Amish but we actually stepped away from the ghetto and made it more candy pop,” the designer said, adding that she is a lover of pop art.

“It gives you an alternative to what you normally see. I like Dadaism and expressionism, that movement in art makes one think differently. So, I thought: What about having these hats in African print fabrics? What about playful shorts, which is something that would have not been allowed in that kind of society?”

Emergence of the ‘new guard’
Last year’s Elle Rising Star Design award-winner Nicholas Coutts was out to show why he deserved the coveted title, if his powerful presentation during the AFI Next Generation segment was anything to go by.

Bold structures, colour, magnificent metallics and opulent textures defined the young designer’s runway debut. Similarly, another young designer, Lara Klawikowski, sent models sashaying down the runway in a range of bold, conceptual looks, once again employing the label’s signature pin-tucking technique.

Coutts and Klawikowski put many established designers who waste time with uninspiring and repetitive ranges to shame. It really boggles the mind why the likes of Non-European, Lalesso and several others still show on the fashion week stage if they are not willing to inject even the slightest element of surprise.

The absence of several brands that usually feature at the Cape Town shows saw an emergence of what buyer Felicity Spies termed a “new guard”. Habits, David Tlale, Thula Sindi and Rosenworth are just some of the brands that sat this season out.

“I think [it is] the new talent that is coming through,” Spies said. “I thought Selfi, for instance, did a great job. I think she put a great collection together in terms of telling a story. Unfortunately, I still think the quality in terms of fabric is still lacking. I think if she is going to break into the money, the real customers and buyers, she has got to up her game slightly. But she’s definitely got the artistic talent.”

Confidence is coming through
Jessica Lupton from Gaschette Magazine said she felt the energy of the emerging talent was something that bodes well for local fashion. Although Mpungwe has moved beyond the “emerging” category, her collection cements her position at the top.

“I’m obsessed with Loin Cloth & Ashes. I think Anisa is exploring a new African identity and how old South Africa meets new South Africa, which is pretty cool,” Lupton said.

The outgoing editor of Elle magazine, Jackie Burger, said the industry is reaching a stage of maturation.

“When I started out, the industry was still in its infancy, but the creativity has always been there,” she said. “What I enjoyed is that, I think, there’s a lot more focus. From a designer’s point of view, I feel that there is a new energy. Yes, they still have their signature looks but there’s a confidence and a modernity that is coming through.

“I also liked how a lot of designers are really focusing on the strengths of their brands. If you look at Marianne, if you look at Gavin, it’s larger than life. It’s layered, it’s beautiful fabrics – the craftsmanship is excellent.

“I think, once you get that shift, the shows become so much more relevant and, sitting in the audience, it becomes tangible – and that is very, very powerful.”

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