Is it really necessary for SA designers to show abroad?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

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?


Blckseed said...

I'm glad someone out there shares my sentiments. I think many South African designers think fashion week, be it anywhere in the world, is a launchpad for their brands. Such, in my opinion is hardly the case. And every time my fashion student friends go on about "I can't wait to show at fashion week", I literally feel like slapping them back to reality. They simply have no concept of "fashion as a business".

Bec said...

I'm not even into fashion and I found this really interesting. Great writing Milli!

tanna said...

Very interesting a sa designer who has shown abroad (europe,asia and africa) i know that the objectives for each trip should be and are different. Some are pure PR exercises for the sponsor,some are like trunk shows and others are great for learning and observing how the business of fashion is conducted on the most proffessional level. But the only thing is that designers should NOT incurr debt or be naive about expectations.breaking into an already saturated market is near impossible if one has not even penetrated their home market...but in the same breath I personally treat overseas trips for creating contacts,learning how to better my product and also as a tool to improve my CV (YES its a dirty little secret but most designers wish to attract investors or get a mid to high level creative post at a Blue chip fashion company) and for that one needs an impressive CV

missmillib said...

Thanks Becs and Sandiso!

You're right Tanna - they can be for different reasons, though I wish most designers would just go there to learn, come back and reflect then implement what they have learned. And you're absolutely right about creating contacts, meeting people and building your CV. I actually know a local designer who is going to intern for a very high end fashion label in Italy. I'm going to interview her when she's back from finalising the deal. That is the kind of stuff I'm talking about. I was so irritated that the real fashion people were not there! Anyway, we can all only learn from it henceforth.

tanna said...

From my experience ,if a designer wants to get real attention from legitimate media he or she should seek editorial presence (appear in mags,approach mag editors/stylists etc) worked for Altazurra and others too...its not easy but it is do-able...journalists need a point of reference,they can't write or report on designers who have not even received any interest from the more adventurous papers are more conservative about content...the topic has to be of some consequence...harsh but true

tanna said...

Though I believe the trend has waned but CELEBRITY DRESSING could also give a new designer the edge and point of reference needed to become 'news worthy'...Elie Saab is really the last designer I remember this working for. But I guess if the african or african american stars in entertainment industry would wear african designers it could catapult one into the mass subconsciousness

missmillib said...

That happened to Jason Wu. I knew about him from the CFDA nomination but the rest of America knew him after he made Michelle Obama's inauguration dress. Now he's all the buzz there. It's really a combination of many things. The media is not playing their role in the proliferation of the local fashion industry into the mainstream, but then again, that takes time. Designers also need to choose who attends their shows strategically, and that's also the role of the PR companies that do Fashion Week, though in my opinion, designers need to start understanding the value in paying somebody to do marketing and pr for you. I know there's no money, but it's important to tell people you're out there. Look where David Tlale's gotten just by people knowing his name. There's a lot of teething problems in our industry, but I'd rather we have problems now for the next 20 years than nothing. Atleast our industry's a nascent one and I think we're all going in the right direction, as long we we keep correcting our mistakes.

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