Cape Town catwalks spotlight SA as fashion frontier

From avant-garde couture to wispy romantic ready-to-wear, South Africa’s growing viability as a new fashion frontier was paraded on the ramps at Cape Town’s Fashion Week this weekend.

Veteran South African designers launched their spring/summer 2008 collection alongside young unknowns as the country aims to provide a springboard for the growing array of fashion talent at the tip of Africa.

Bursting with creativity, South African designers are working to show their skills can compete worldwide.

Themba Mngomezulu—the designer of South African label Darkie—first became interested in fashion when he helped his mother sell second-hand clothes.

“We know what we want and who we are,” Mngomezulu said after showing his latest collection, youthful and urban in seasonal brights peppered with slogans and the ever-present image of the Afro-comb to the soulful sounds of Ray Charles and Nina Simone.

“We have got the vision in this country. Internationally people have been using Africa as an inspiration for years. It is time for African designers to benefit,” says Evan Schiff, spokesperson of Africa Fashion International, which runs the event.

“Traditionally the only stories coming out of Africa are of war, famine and despots.
We are trying to put something else out there. There are lots of beautiful things coming out of here,” he said.

Getting designs to the world was made easier in a major coup for South African fashion recently, as designers from the continent’s economic powerhouse were last year granted a permanent slot at Paris Fashion Week.

While four designers showed their spring/summer collections there last year, local household name Gavin Rajah became the only South African designer invited by France’s prestigious Federation Francaise de la Couture to showcase his collections at the Paris Fashion Week.

Rajah’s 2009 couture collection displayed in Cape Town combined the rhythmic kick of the tango, samba and bossanova with a Latin America inspired range in opulent silks, tulle and chantilly lace and meticulous embroidery.

Full lacy skirts, beaded bustiers and romantic Spanish-inspired silk capes took the enraptured audience from Cuba to Argentina and Rio de Janeiro, from where old-world architecture alongside modern asymmetry inspired Rajah.

He drew parallels between the radiant and diverse people of South Africa and South America.

Daring designer David Tlale was also true to dramatic form at the finale where models dazzled in red-sequined hands, lips and feet while draped in shimmering black designs.

Rajah, who founded Cape Town’s fashion week, said South Africans, so long cut off internationally as a pariah under the former apartheid regime, had “learned to be a lot more innovative. We look at what we have and make do”.

However, launching spring/summer ranges as trend-setting Europe enters winter, he feels designers are echoing collections on international catwalks instead of putting their own twist on available fabrics and trends.

“The designers are following the trends far too late,” he said, adding local designers still had to fight the instinct of going overtly Afro-chic as they struggled to find their identity.

“As fashionable as traditional clothing may be it is not fashion. It has to translate into something that has commercial appeal,” said Rajah, who has dressed Beyonce, Tyra Banks and Nelson Mandela.

While an economic crunch has seen thousands of job losses in South Africa’s textile industry and a general tightening of belts, Schiff says a growing black middle-class and the super-wealthy in the country meant there was still a market for exclusive design.

“There are people with money and they do want to look good.”—AFP

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