So some of the best designers in SA - Kluk CGDT, Clive Rundle, David Tlale and Lunar are having exhibitions of their clothing during Paris Fashion Week, thanks to Arise Magazine and its initiative of exposing the world's fashion capitals to African Fashion Designers.
Gavin Rajah did the same thing a few years ago, maybe slightly different - and one half of the industry was excited that four of our rather inexperienced young designers were going to "show" in the fashion capital, while the other half raised their brows and voices of disapproval, saying that the four young designers were not ready to even step out of Gauteng with their experience. I was in the latter half (still living in Cape Town at the time) and when I bumped into one of the four designers at a party after their trip, I asked him whether it had improved his business or not. He lethargically shrugged his shoulders, saying that he'd actually incurred some debt as a result and actually....come to think of it, said designer isn't a designer anymore.
As a result, I think twice before becoming impressed when a designer says "I've showed in such and such a place", because if you're not churning the butter with more money after your globe trotting, what's the point of going there besides the travelling?
I was at the Arise African Collective Fashion show in New York this year and was very impressed at the turnout but slightly nervous about the collections, because as much as I wasn't sure how I felt about the whole thing, I still wanted the African designers to do well. I'd been attending the other shows as a spot marker for Video Fashion and had seen fashion editors of powerful publications and the most respected fashion journalists at most of the shows.
I got a "standing" ticket to the show, which I was grateful for because of my late application for accreditation, and as a result, got a better view of the front rows...which had not a single one of those highly respected journalists I'd seen at the other shows. I'm talking about Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn, Andre Leon-Talley and Anna Wintour.
At that moment, my gut-feeling was confirmed and I got an irritated lump in my throat. Then the questions started...were we Africans invited by IMG to show here? How did this come about? What are the financial returns for these designers? Are African designers now going to export their clothes to the US? I then noticed that the audience was strangely but not so strangely, very African. I'd been attending the shows all week and I could count the number of African Americans or black people in attendance. For this show, it looked like every single African in New York was there to support Africa. It felt good to see so many Africans, and to get a few "Sawubona's" from strangers, but why were there so few of the people that make the global fashion industry go round? What were Black Coffee, Loin Cloth and Ashes and Deola Sago going to get from showing in New York? Were there buyers there to talk deals with them after the show?
I'd rented a really beautiful dress from one of the designers that took part in the show for my trip and when I returned it to them last week, I casually asked them, "So what's gonna happen now"...and I didn't really get a proper answer. Maybe they didn't want to reveal their business dealings to me but when one of them said "We actually went there for fun", I knew that all that glitters is not gold.
I hope my laissez-faire attitude to the four South African designers who are exhibiting in Paris this weekend is misplaced. If they come back with contacts interested in importing their garments, then I'll be happy to be wrong about my concern, but if they come back with unfulfilled expectations, then why is there a magazine going around the world displaying African fashion, as if it's just an object and not as a product for trade and trade only?
What is the real interest behind Arise's parading of African designers around the world? If it's purely for the magazine's appeal, then well done to their PR team because everybody knows of Arise Magazine. There's nothing wrong with them using the designers and the show to increase the magazine's readership and appeal in Paris and New York, but from a business perspective, is it really valuable for these designers to show in New York and Paris?
It's never a good business decision for a designer to spend months working on a collection that's going to be applauded by the public and not even seen by the people that ensure the company's financial amelioration.
My motive for writing this is to tell what I saw, that the power of the New York Fashion Industry doesn't really care that African designers were showing during fashion week, which is why they didn't even go. So why is it that we care to "show dem" so much? I don't think Arise is wrong for going about their business like this, it is after all a eat or be eaten world, but whose really doing the eating in this case?