Finding a fashion China

With the South African fashion and textile industry deeply concerned by the effect of Chinese competition on local business, the Department of Arts and Culture, helped by the Department of Trade and Industry, arranged for six local designers to show their work across the Asian country late in April. But rather than fill us with fear and loathing, designers say exchange between the Chinese behemoth and the local industry can be good for both countries.

The designers were chosen by the Department of Arts and Culture and the trip was organised with the help of Sanlam South African Fashion Week (SSAFW). The six designers—Abigail Betz, Stoned Cherrie, Clive Rundle, Bongiwe Walaza, Thula Sindi and Amanda Laird Cherry—showed their garments in four major cities: Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

South African designers do not source the amount of fabric that would raise concern about importing textiles, says the executive director of the South African Textile Federation, Brian Brink. Rather, since they create smaller ranges requiring more variety, they might have to look to a country like China to find the fabrics they need.

Indeed Lucilla Booyzen, director of the SSAFW, says that the trip was ‘about building international relations and business contacts” with China. The debate about China’s impact on the local industry did not influence the purpose of the trip. ‘We’re building the creative fashion industry,” she says, emphasising that creative feedback from the Chinese media and fashion experts was good for designers’ development.

For the designers, however, it was an eye opener on both the creative and business fronts. Lauded local designer Bongiwe Walaza says her work was well received, simply because her style is so reflective of the African continent and different from the tastes of the Chinese market, which is saturated with Western style and labels.

‘They are not more creative than South Africans, we are on par,” says Walaza. ‘The only difference is they have a greater market and greater resources. On a personal level it was a mind opener,” she says.

Walaza says she heard debates about the threat of cheaper labour in China, but found that staff there were paid about the same as South African workers. Machinery, however, is cheaper, of better quality and the output is far greater.

Rundle believes China’s market is still too outward looking when it comes to fashion. He argues that South African consumers are far more willing to buy local brands than Chinese people.

‘China is obsessed with Western labels,” says Rundle. ‘Chinese designers are still pandering to that taste.”

Rundle says local designers got a great deal of feedback about their design and creative techniques. ‘On a design level they were fascinated.” He attributed the attraction to ‘intangible qualities” that influence design but cannot be packaged, controlled or quantified.

One designer will return to China at the end of the year. Betz was invited to back to the country to participate in the Guangzhou Fashion Week in December.

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