Dystopia and delight

There was something disturbingly hypno-pompic about the closing night of Durban Fashion Week at the Suncoast Casino last Saturday.

Karen Monk-Klijnstra had just thrown everything but the therapist’s couch into a collection examining and saluting the female experience.

Themes ranging from the darker side of familial breakdown, destitution and recovery to inner strength, independence and motherhood were examined in a show marrying theatre to the catwalk which was equal parts dystopia and delight.

The show played itself out as various small dramas. In one instance a male model in the stands, with hand-painted portraits on his suit, stood — to the surprise of the audience — and approached a female model on the catwalk. A sort of romantic rejection ensued and, as the woman continued walking, her male counterpart followed her on to the catwalk. The designer emerged at the end of the show in a straitjacket with “No Theatrix” on the back — her family in tow.

This year’s event showcased a number of young designers, such as Tozama Nandipha Dyantyi (Tozama) and Zayne Isaacs (Ragnarok), all of whom showed an adventurous use of fabric and detailing that won over audiences and fashion aficionados alike.

“Young designers have been innovative in their use of fabrics. Some of them obviously don’t have access to large amounts of fabrics such as satin and silks so they’ve used fabrics like hessian,” said Glamour fashion editor Cathy Steed.

Apart from economics, she said the move reflected a “global trend of a greater concern for the environment and an increasing use of organic and green fabrics — in this case with an African sensibility”.

Two designers who used hessian effectively in their collections were Dyantyi and Smiso Mbindwane (Fresh), who showed at Wednesday’s opening night.

A breathtaking evening gown in Dyanti’s collection melded both her native Eastern Cape rural aesthetic with Fifties glamour. A voluminous hessian shoulder cape topped a dress that reflected the umbhaco (traditional amaXhosa ceremonial dress) in volume and length, updated with hessian and weaved satin ribbons.

The 26-year-old Dyanti, who grew up in the village of Cala in the Eastern Cape, admits “following my
grandmother, who was tall and refined, with such dignity, around” for most of her childhood. She said one of her creative objectives was to translate that sophistication and refinement into her collection. This, however, had a suggestion of sensuality in the folding and a discarding of overused details, such as the thin lines usually found at the hem of the umbhaco.

“The old women in Xhosa culture were queens who were treated with respect and had such poise and I wanted that translated into the work,” said the Vukani Fashion Award winner, who is completing her second year in fashion design at Fedisa in Cape Town.

“You find hessian all over ama-Xhosa society; it is used for packing mealies to tying the beads around the ankles of little girls for dancing — and the colours were manipulated to reflect the colour of homemade beer,” said Dyantyi.

For 23-year-old graphic design and fine art graduate Mbindwane the use of hessian was part of his penchant for “continuously breaking the rules — mine and others”.

Instead of “designing a piece and then going out to look for texture and colour in fabrics”, he reversed the process. He used taffeta and denim, but found hessian a “very natural fabric” that allowed him to explore his inclination “to think outside of the box”.

Delicious slim-fitted plum jackets were turned out with jeans reminiscent of Victorian riding jodhpurs. Tops were embellished with logos and graphic design and “seams were reversed and the outsides of clothes left raw”. Mbindwane finished in the top three at last year’s Durban July Young Designer Challenge.

Steed was excited by Isaacs’s nu-punk take on denim, especially the “the belted-leg jeans, which I haven’t seen since the 1970s”.

Bekky Beukes’s Chimera range delivered her anti-war theme with straightforward messaging, using words like “xeNOphobia” on the garments. She juxtaposed delicate fabric such as silk organza, satin and chiffon with hand-painted enamel, punkish detail and metallic braces: “I am basically an artist and I wanted to break the horizons of South African fashion with something linked to the problems in society. There is a need and space for greater activism in South African fashion,” said Beukes.

Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, chairperson of African Fashion International, which has a 50% share in Durban Fashion Week, says local fashion is attempting to define a space that balances “the very ethnic with something that is commercially viable internationally”. The seeds of this may well have been planted in Durban in the past four days as young designers played around with conventional South African themes and fabrics and, in the process, extended narratives.

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