Thursday, March 3, 2011

South African fashion’s big ambitions let her down

My wardrobe is stocked with predominantly South African labels- Craig Port, Silver Spoon, X&O, Vertigo, Darkie- and on a Durban trip a couple of years ago I was amazed by the interest that the Durbanites had in my clothes. “Where did you get this?” they would ask. I am relating this story because I find that there’s a notion that people don’t want to support South African fashion. 

This idea probably has a little merit to it, but my own experiences (including what I mention above) tell me that it is something we tend to blow out of proportion a bit. By now I am sure you are familiar with the story of Pulchritude, the initiative to make South African fashion accessible, by blogger Milisuthando Bongela. She took to the markets of Johannesburg late last year with a number of proudly South African labels and through what I’ve personally witnessed the initiative is a resounding success. For me it clearly demonstrates that maybe, just maybe, the idea of South Africans not supporting local fashion is somewhat discredited.

Last night as I sat at a conference convened by African Fashion International and a number of other partners to discuss a way forward for fashion that goes beyond fashion week to look at the commercial aspect of the industry I became a little frustrated by the perpetual reference to this idea. A number of issues were raised- the quality of South African fashion being one of them. Yes, this is a debate to be had but I was disappointed by how it was contextualized in a global fashion domination sense. To put my point across quite simply I think we are breeding a baby that we are forcing to stomach meat even before it grows any teeth.

I agree that, yes, we need to have a global outlook. We do need to get designers to set high standards for their product to compete with the likes of Gucci or Marc Jacobs. But again, the baby has no teeth, why must she eat meat? We are far too concerned with trying to find ways to penetrate a global market that is dominated by decades old brands without addressing the needs of our own market. Small a market as South Africa is, I find no sense in saying let’s go conquer Europe when we aren’t even at a point where Miss Jones sitting in Port Elizabeth or Bloem does not have the opportunity to buy the South African product without having to drive to Johannesburg or Cape Town or call a designer to place an order. 

The convenience of shopping plays a huge role, in my opinion, in what ends up in our closets. Secondly, inflated prices of South African fashion do us no favours. Designers ought to have an understanding of the market within which they operate. They need to stop neglecting the ordinary chunk of South Africans who don’t own Gucci suits simply because they don’t have the disposable income that affords them that luxury. Why is this South African not being viewed as a potential customer? Why is fashion not being made accessible to this customer? How do we go about doing so?

I truly believe we are getting ahead of ourselves. The industry needs to cash in. We have not fully exploited the South African market. Coveting the international stage is a hang up that we need to get over. It’s a long term ideal that cannot be realized without addressing the short-term.

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