Design Indaba: In the business of fashion

A fashion show at the Design Indaba in Cape Town. (Yazeed Kamaldien)

A fashion show at the Design Indaba in Cape Town. (Yazeed Kamaldien)

Fashion designers sold an estimated R1.1-million worth of clothes over three days at this weekend's Design Indaba expo in Cape Town, despite the sector's usual struggle to sell local labels in this city.

Bryan Ramkilawan, speaking at the three-day showcase that concluded on Sunday, said the 40 local designers they selected to have pop-up stalls at the event earned R800 000 by Saturday. He estimated that sales would have totalled R1.1-million by the end of the expo.

Ramkilawan is head of the Cape Town Fashion Council, which bought expo space for fashion designers – 80% from Cape Town, the rest from Johannesburg – and organised 20 fashion shows for the three days.

On a related note, the fashion sale is perhaps indicative of what the Design Indaba expo has become: a market to sell products, instead of interrogating where and how local thinking about design is evolving. Swarms of the expo's visitors pitch up to shop instead of sniffing out thought-provoking design.

Ramkilawan did not talk much about the design aesthetic on show either.
Instead, he spoke about wanting to make money for the designers and "growing the industry".

The fashion council started showcasing local designers at the indaba in 2010, he said, with only three labels present. Growth has meant that in 2014, the 40 designers paid almost 25% of the R1-million cost of buying space and producing their fashion shows at Design Indaba.

'Access to consumers'
Ramkilawan added that the council paid "much less" than R1-million because its partners assisted with covering costs. He said they chose to showcase fashion at Design Indaba to "make sure designers have access to consumers".

"At this general event, everybody is looking at the fashion," he said.

The expo meanwhile expressed to the council that it needed to take fashion and designers to consumers. The council plans to create pop-up exhibitions four times a year in different parts of Cape Town, instead of hanging out only near the city centre.

According to Ramkilawan, expos and the mid-year Cape Town Fashion Week – the city presently has only one such event annually – help to "build credibility of brands".

But with only one annual dedicated fashion platform, which is run by businessperson Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe's African Fashion International, the council has had to think of other means of showcasing designers throughout the year.

"Designers need help with logistics and reaching a market. We need to take them to other places too. We want to show their work in different malls and public spaces. We can set up anywhere," explained Ramkilawan.

"Designers have finished products but no space to sell. We want to have events where designers and public can have access to each other. A lot of the public feels they don't have access to designers. With this, you can talk to the designer and build a relationship."

'Credible designers'
Ramkilawan said the council and designers were struggling to "build the retail sector". Layla Cassim of the label Lazuli said its retail presence at Canal Walk Shopping Centre will remain "only if the business does well".

"It's challenging maintaining a retail store. You're competing with major retailers. Our goods are also more expensive than cheap goods imported from China," says Cassim.

She said pop-up stores at various events played a "big part in getting consumers to know about your brand".

"It equals advertising and being associated with credible designers and fashion events. This is a great platform for young designers to get out there. It's good because people are walking past your work and getting to know your brand," she says.

Additionally, fashion shows also expose designers to a consuming public.

'Sold out'
"After we had our runway show [at the expo], we did so well. Most of our collection seen on the runway was sold," said Cassim.

Couturier Jacque Lagrange was surprised when he sold ready-to-wear garments at the expo.

"I didn't expect to sell one thing because this isn't really my market. I do couture," he said.

"But on the opening day, over lunchtime, most of my garments sold out. I had almost 40 garments and there is almost nothing left. I charged less than what I usually do because I wanted to let the garments go," Lagrange added.

Women's ready-to-wear designer Celeste Arendse, who runs her label Selfi, said this was her third year participating in Design Indaba's expo.

The concept worked for her; it helps her brand grow, while, she said, it is "part of my plan to have my own retail space".

"I am now growing a following and in two years I want to have a conceptual store … An expo is the perfect place [to show your work] if you don't have a shop. It introduces your brand to the public and customers gain respect for you," said Arendse.

'Business of fashion'
Established men's wear label C Squared also had a pop-up stall at the expo. Its designer, Wayne Govender, said they participated at the expo to "expose our brand to local and international buyers".

"There are international buyers here as well so there's a good prospect for us to export. It's money well spent. We have made some sales even though we are looking more for exposure for the brand," said Govender.

According to Ramkilawan, after the expo the fashion ended, the council planned to look for other ways to "replicate this". The council's focus was the "business of fashion", he said.

"That's the key for us. We want to create jobs."

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