Fresh take on an old style

At this season’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week designer Gavin Rajah hearkens back to a legendary era of glamour and rebellion. He draws inspiration from the 1950s with bold custom-made animal prints, silk and lace in his collection.

This pioneer of the South African fashion industry, who is a Unicef goodwill ambassador, specialises in high-end couture and has shown at fashion weeks in New York and Paris. But it is his love of cinema and the mysteries of human communication that have inspired his latest ­collections.

His official biography tells us he has dressed celebrities Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé, Jodie Kidd, Tina Turner, Paris Hilton, Celine Dion and Cameron Diaz.  

What is the theme for your latest collection?
With my international clients jetting off to hot destinations and our local girls gearing up for the party season, I chose to put together a high-summer collection. It is evident in the bright colours and the breathable materials. It is an extension of the collection we showed at the New York Fashion Week this year. There are strong themes that are American coming through the collection.

What was the inspiration behind it?
For starters, I fell in love with the 1950s, and I was inspired by two movies: King Kong and A Summer Place. The range is divided into two. The first part is exotic and slightly tribal and the second is very romantic. It is post generation X and Y, taking a new direction. In New York, there is a new breed of woman coming out and a sense of romanticism. America features in the line. It signifies how women are celebrated.

People say that they pick up signs of the Statue of Liberty.

Why that era and why those two specific movies?
A Summer Place [directed by Delmer Daves and starring Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire] was seminal in illustrating a new liberation of women. Ladies, back in the day, were housekeepers, wore beautiful dresses and took care of the children while no one knew their dramas. Their innate angst and pain was hidden behind picket fences. The 1950s saw women moving out of the kitchen and into the workplace. Women became free and did not compromise on their femininity. I chose the 1950s because it was the era of the birth of science-fiction literature and it was also the golden age of baseball. That is why you can see, in the second part of my collection, I have sporting influences because sport is a huge trend. It is about a new sense of freedom.

What types of fabric and beading did you use?
I worked with Pirelli, the tyre manufacturers, to produce a special type of laminated fabric that was prevalent in the late 1950s and is now coming back. I also used a lot of beading, which we made ourselves in my studios. I am known as the king of beads. I wanted something that was almost jewel-like. The metallic trend is huge this season. I have a baseball jacket that is beaded at the back. The cameo detailing conveys the secret message of gifts that lovers give to one another, like the language of flowers. I believe that if you want to play on an international field then you need to have bold designs and try new things. You can see that we tried to do that with our beading. This year is all about science fiction and we used moonstone. We did laser-cut embroidery on a colour graphic vinyl. It was the first time we have tried something like that.

Who are your favourite celebrities to dress?
I do not make my garments for celebrities alone. That is not what my clothes are about. The important thing to me is my client, so all my ­clients are celebrities.

What books are you reading at the moment?
There are always a few things that I am reading, but at the moment I am focusing on two books that also helped to inspire this collection. One is called The Language of Flowers, published by Hugh Evelyn. It deals with the Victorian concept of how people created or communicated in secretive ways [through flowers]. The other book is called On Ugliness and is written by Umberto Eco. He is the father of semiotics and he is big on writing about hidden meanings. I find them intriguing.

The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week takes place at Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, until October 28

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