Designers from South Africa are looking at new ways to innovate and create awareness about the country’s burgeoning fashion industry.
South Africa is swiftly becoming a focus for fashion afficionados, with designers garnering international recognition. Thula Sindi, David Tlale and SELFI are amongst the more well-known names of the global and domestic stage. However, alongside these established brands are some young emerging talents that are breaking into the international market through the support of groups such as the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a flagship programme of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.
The aim of the aforementioned group is, as Communications Assistant Maryjo Cartier states: “To promote local fashion encouraging ‘Made in Africa’ manufacturing with artisans, and support the growth of small enterprises. Through exposure, designers gain a unique opportunity to showcase their work and understand the expectations and quality standards of the industry as well as knowledge of how it works as a whole (from putting together catwalk shows to the requirements of retailers). Through connections created by the EFI, brands like Sindiso Khumalo and MaXhosa by Laduma have secured new retail outlets and media coverage.”
Practitioners who have particularly benefited from EFI’s African Designer Programme include Lukhanyo Mdingi and Adriaan Kuiters of the AKJP Collective. Due to their involvement with the EFI, both names were recently approached as the subject of fashion documentaries by Brooklyn-based studio Noir Tribe – a company that has been nominated for numerous awards and screened at festivals including the Miami Fashion Film Festival, the London Fashion Film Festival, the Istanbul Fashion Film Festival and the Australian International Fashion Film Festival. The short films, part of a series called Ethetics (a title that combines ethics and aesthetics), were the brainchild of Amber Moelter and Luis Barreto Carrillo, a collaboration that was born through the wide-spread connections of the EFI, which in turn has a strong history of marrying fashion and cinema. As Simone Cipriani, founder and director, says: “It is more vital than ever to create awareness amongst the general public of the social issues behind the surface of fashion.”
The idea for Ethetics can be traced back to Moelter, who explains: “I reached out to the EFI shortly before travelling to Cape Town for the Mercedes-Benz Bokeh South Africa Fashion Film Festival where we were showing a documentary and a fashion fllm. Maryjo Cartier at EFI introduced me to Keith Henning at AKJP and Lukhanyo Mdingi, who were all very enthusiastic about working together on a hybrid documentary / fashion lm. We sent the nished piece to the EFI and officially announced our partnership.”
The motivation fuelling the films snowballed after this initial green light. Moelter notes: “We learned that the effects of fast fashion hit the designers hard, so to compete, they focus on social responsibility and quality in their production. Henning brought his seamstresses into town to work out of his studio, which allowed them to collaborate with other clients, providing a more sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their children. He also expressed the importance of having long-term responsibility for his local team and considering them in the choices that he makes, such as relocation.”
Noir Tribe’s work is rooted in this growing movement of communal and environmental consciousness, with their films propagating “a harmony of products that cause the least damage to the planet as possible whilst still giving the consumer satisfaction.” Moelter and Carrillo hope that their contributions can “initiate conversations about ethical fashion by exploring ecological benefits and a variety of ways to implement them, such as reducing the water footprint and using natural dyes and organic bres, and introducing processes to eliminate textile waste like recycling, upcycling, closing the loop, zero waste and cradle to cradle.”
Compared to the “dog-eat-dog fashion industry in New York”, what the filmmakers found through their extensive interviews was: “the importance of a collective. Mdingi recently told us: ‘We, as a label, have now reached a stage where it goes far beyond focusing on our in-house production but we are eager to find out the background of the raw materials that are being sourced and the manufacturing history. Being a part of this larger infrastructure has made that possible.’”
Moelter also expands upon the inspiration behind the project: not only do Noir Tribe demonstrate a sense of group morals, but a conscious move away from the westernised idea of disposable garments. “In Henning’s experience, there is a ‘new understanding’ that the seemingly high quality of fast fashion is seducing customers and when the actual material quickly deteriorates, they just go out and buy another one. And in turn, Mdingi emphasises how buying local supports the economy and empowers the arts.”
The EFI’s far-reaching network stretches to Haiti, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Ethiopia, the West Bank and Cambodia, which demonstrates a shift in consumer trends away from established centres, as more and more people are integrating sustainable practices into their daily lives. Using a monitoring tool called RISE (Respect, Invest, Sustain, Empower), the impact of producing fashion is fully traced by the supply chain. The tool communicates the added value brought about by artisanal production. The information is furthered by RISEMAP, an online platform which showcases the complexity of a product’s journey through photos and videos. Any garment that has the RISE label has a QR code that guides the reader to data and stories, and charts the item from inception to its final production.
The outcomes are ultimately manifested through the mentoring and guidance of the African Designer Programme in which creatives are given the opportunity to showcase their collections at top fashion weeks. But whether this necessarily translates into a global boost to the designer’s career, or just a one-o , needs to be more closely tracked. Kuiters (from the AKJP) says that their participation in the Generation Africa show at Pitti Uomo 2016 in Florence, an opportunity offered through the EFI, had a direct impact on their output as they were forced to produce a collection in a limited amount of time. Though a much-needed morale boost, breaking into the European market proved more di cult due to more known fashion houses and brands taking precedence.
The AKJP Collective tends to outsource everything to near-by craftsmen, rather than make products in-house at the studio, encouraging participants to move forward together rather than as individuals. Funding in South Africa is distributed through umbrella groups, so financially it makes sense. This is in stark contrast to the über-competitive fashion industry in the previously mentioned fast-paced and competitive capitals of New York, Milan and Paris, where there is a much more cut-throat environment. This landscape of rivalry often means that a lot of emphasis is placed on, and money is pushed towards, marketing budgets and multi- national advertising campaigns, rather than used to invest in higher quality fabrics and production, helping social causes at a grassroots level and paying a fair living wage.
Mdingi also shares this perspective, noting that the less established infrastructure of support in South Africa means that designers need to assist one another as a matter of necessity. Their situation is due to not just politics but a lack of textiles, skilled labourers and machinery. This makes it difficult to experiment and use di erent techniques. Having a local customer helps empower smaller businesses that produce the raw materials needed to thrive and flourish. Though new technology has enabled young visionaries to operate internationally, it hasn’t necessarily translated to the manufacturing level. Again, this is something that needs to be and is being addressed through the efforts of the EFI.
Kuiters says: “Luxury fashion is a very new concept in Africa,” and ultimately it is incredibly difficult to compete with cities that have stronger economies and distribution channels. Added to that is the matter of producing clothes that can sell both domestically and internationally. Cape Town doesn’t really have a winter like cities in the northern hemisphere, so a delicate balance is required to produce cold-weather garments that are appropriate for global export.
MERGE ZA, a travelling showroom, presented the ideas of Mdingi as well as four other South African designers – Rich Mnisi, SELFI, Wanda Lephoto and Young & Lazy to London Fashion Week in September 2016, bringing South African fashion design and concepts to a much wider audience.
Increasingly, brands will have to look outwards for promotion on the international stage – and this goes beyond merely the support of famous faces like Michelle Obama (who wore Nigerian designer Maki Oh on her Africa tour in 2013).
South Africa is the main shopping destination for sub-Saharan nations, and larger cities such as Cape Town have what you’d expect on a typical high street. This means that there is no real retail outlet for many of these burgeoning studios, which makes it difficult for consumers to support local practitioners as they don’t know where to buy the garments. However, Mdingi argues optimistically: “We have the power to do anything and everything that we want; it’s important for us to realise that we are living in a globalised world. It’s up to us to use our networks in the best possible way to create these opportunities.”
The wider influence of the fashion industry – model agencies, stylists, make-up artists, the media, events and private boutiques – is increasingly being fostered in Africa. Elle South Africa magazine’s Rising Star competition (in which Mdingi was a 2013 finalist) means that the immediate press is identifying and promoting this area of growth. Integral to such development must be a recognition of the impact on the communities, promoted by tools such as Ethical Fashion Initiative’s RISE, and with nine of the world’s 20 fastest-growing economies being African, it is important that consumers and designers do not lose track of the significance of safe working conditions, a fair living wage, and the importance of understanding the source of the raw materials they use in manufacturing. As Noir Tribe dares its viewers: “Let’s prove that ethical fashion isn’t a cause to donate to, but is full of stylish brands worth investing in.”
Words Niamh Coghlan