Boldly dancing to Africa's tune
Gareth Cowden has designed trilbies, cravats, garrison caps, neckties, hair bows and umbrellas that evoke “Afrocentrism” and his affinity for African prints. A graduate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, with a BA majoring in human kinetics, ergonomics and industrial psychology, Cowden moved into fashion from necessity rather than vocation: he needed a job and started out as an assistant to fashion stylists.
In the industry for more than a decade now and the head of his own label since 2009, Cowden is an entrepreneur who created Babatunde (“the Father returns” in Yoruba) as a fusion of African prints and funky designs.
He aims to “show people around the globe that Africa is a progressive, creative, and contemporary design force”. Which is why he manufactures his garments and accessories in South Africa, and sources his fabrics only on the continent.
The range itself is the image of Babatunde’s campaign: racy, bright and confident, a palette of gaudy hues and hip patterns.
Where did you learn about fashion?
On the streets of Jo’burg and watching music videos: it captivated me [all the way] through high school.
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt?
Don’t be scared to try new things.
Never be late.
What was the most valuable advice you received?
Rather be a first-rate version of yourself than a second-rate version of someone else.
What is great style for you?
Effortless, comfortable style is always great. Some people can wear a can of baked beans on their head and pull it off. Others can’t. Everyone needs to understand their own body, their own personality and their own style.
What makes a great fashion brand?
A brand that people can relate to, believe in, and almost feel a part of. I also believe that brands that sell a lifestyle or a positive message or something more than just products are more attractive to consumers. And finally, brands that remain relevant throughout seasons and trends.
What are the biggest opportunities for a fashion designer in South Africa?
To create truly African designs. The world seems quite infatuated with Africa at the moment so we should be designing in a way that expresses what we want to express and not reference foreign labels. We should cling on to this before the world finds its new darling.
What are the biggest challenges?
Limited fabric supply, the expense of importing fabrics from other African countries and, as much as I hate to say it, dealing with a lot of the local manufacturers is incredibly challenging.
In South Africa, which city best represents local fashion and why?
Jozi. It is the most vibrant city and is more influenced by other African countries and their people.
What trend never dies?
Trends don’t die. They just go round in circles.
What is on your moodboard at the moment?
Pictures of Ghana. I need to get there soon to find new fabrics.
As a designer, do you feel responsible for contributing to the development of fashion in Africa?
Definitely. A European trend consultant told me recently that we are “too romantic” about getting our products manufactured here. But I feel we have to do what we can to ensure that the clothing and textile industry is supported and developed. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to compete with China or India when it comes to quality and pricing. We should create jobs for our people.
One song that could define you?
Surfin’ by Ernest Ranglin.
One movie that could define you?
Escape to Victory.
The obligatory cheesy question: cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate! I have a very sweet tooth.