The terminal illness of fashion as we know it

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Things are changing, faster than most of us care to admit, but they are.  A few months ago I had a drunken DMC with a highly respected South African fashion designer at Kitcheners.  Of course all we spoke about was the fashion industry here and abroad.  We were both at New York fashion week last year and as much as I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, there was something I felt that I could never admit when I came back because  it's supposed to have been the greatest trip of my life right? Well it was in terms of exposure and just expanding my visual, cultural and career horizons.  But this fashion designer said it best "The Fashion Industry as we know it, is fucked. In New York, In London, in Paris, everywhere". South Africa is actually in a better position because ours is new and we can go in any direction because we are a cultural mecca and we haven't spent hundreds of years setting up a system that is now about to collapse.

So much in this country is leashed, undiscovered, not done and novelty is something that we can still bank on. The rest of the world has pretty much exhausted originality but we constantly look to them thinking the grass is greener. New York fashion week was amazing because it was what I know, on a much bigger scale and I got to see people I only read about in Vogue or whatever, but more than that, there were no surprises.  I felt this even more when I watched The September Issue - I was surprised to see how insecure Stefano Pilati was in front of Anna Wintour.  These people are not what we make them out to be.  The reason bloggers and other alternative cultural and fashion commentators are sharing page space and front row space with the powers that have been, (your Anna's and Corinne's of this world) is because that power is slipping out of their hands as fast as Zuckerberg's rise to eternal power! I recently chose a Readers Digest magazine over US, British and French Vogue when I was at the airport last month. Why, because as amazing as the shoots and clothes are - too much fashion puts me to sleep.   I need something I don't expect and I get that when I wake up and log onto the net and read blogs and websites like Fashion Gone Rogue that put together all the best shoots from all these mags. Why am I going to spend R160 on a magazine that is going to become irrelevant soon if it doesn't think of ways to keep readers stimulated.  Too much of anything is boring, too much fashion kills me.  That's why Marie Claire works as a magazine, because it's a bit of fashion, a bit of celeb news, a bit of trends, a bit of hard news, a bit of travel, a bit of something different in biteable sizes.  Fashion does not exist in a vacuum - it informs and is a reflection of the Zeitgeist. And that as we know, is currently controlled by the internet.  Newspapers, books and magazines are the victims of the web's reach.

More reach means less power for the people that have maintained a strict model of how things should run.  Soon, it won't be necessary for a young designer to get the nod from the elite of the fashion industry by being invited to show at a Fashion Week, a blogger can just recommend them and they will get instant, credible fame.  Look at how H&M is using that Swedish blogger to design a range for them - that was unheard of 10 years ago and she's not even a designer.  Watch another retailer do the exact same thing.  

This is why I think that locally, we need to move away from this Fashion Week model.  We've tried it, it worked in the beginning and now it's just redundant.  I'm sad about it but we need to face reality.  The model where there are seasons, designers, runway shows, press, celebrities, buyers at the cost of hundreds of thousands has not worked for us.  Not enough people make money from it. Why? Because we don't have a single body controlling everything, we have nine hundred and ninety nine thousand fashion weeks, uninformed press, not enough buyers etc. Our fashion weeks become "Feshin sows" much to the disappointment of people who have worked hard to change that.  But, having said that, it's very important to have the platform that Fashion Weeks in this country have provided for new talent and old talent. It's imperative to have spaces that invite designers, press, buyers, clients, celebrities, government officials etc where we all come together, but I don't think another Fashion Week the way we know it, is going to make a difference to the status quo. We've seen that fortunately, designs that resemble Sally Spektra's have a market in South Africa and so do the ones take inspiration from Celine or Calvin Klein - there's a place for everyone and we need to use that to our advantage. 

What we need are service providers. We need spaces where designers can go to have consultations with financial advisors, business analysts, stylists, press offices and photographers.  We need spaces where young designers who have never been in the spot light, can find stockists, pattern makers, manufacturers, CMT's, office space, places to send email from and meet their clients from.  We need people to help designers market themselves, get funding, improve their skills, to connect them with retailers, to connect them with other industries through trade fairs, to teach them to do business plans.  We need designers to focus on setting themselves up in spaces they can afford, turning out units they can handle and actually selling clothes instead of selling themselves or being blinded by being in some magazine or TV show.  We need to have more apprenticeships.  I heard that Cleo Droomer is interning at Gavin Rajah - good for him.  I'm glad he didn't take the ELLE New Talent prize and start art on his own yet.  He went to learn from someone who has been doing it for a long time, we need more of these collabs between old and new talent because running a business when you're 22 is no joke. 

We don't need hundreds of thousands spent on Sandton Convention Centre anymore.  It's expensive and there's not enough return on the investment for the small little businesses that think that's the epitome of success.  Yes the hype and the pictures are great, but at the end of the day it's about selling the clothes you make.  Some designers are really lucky in this regard, but most are not so lucky.  We need more people coming forward with ideas, doing shit that counts like getting together and hosting sales with your friends so that people know where to find you.  A lot of these happen in Cape Town, the rest of the country needs to catch up.  We need to inspire and be inspired. And another fashion week isn't going to do it for me. 

We are so lucky to be living in a country where so many things haven't been done.  It's a free for all economy.   Somebody needs to start an agency that connects designers to the things they need, another needs to set up an agency connect this industry to corporate sponsors.  We already have government looking at us waiting for us to pull our socks up. I hear that the money is there and I fully believe it.  So what are we waiting for? 2011 is the year of action and good change.



Serisha said...

Milli, I really enjoyed this piece. More people who think they'r creating something need to read this.
Sometimes the best medicine is hard to swallow.

Milisuthando Bongela said...

Thanks Serisha, I hope so too. We are all in this together at the end of the day.

Fanele Love said...

I always enjoy the pictures taken during fashion weeks, they are a great resource for research, etc. I heard something new would be done in Jozi this Feb, on the first day of fashion week.
Whatever it is, I sincerely hope it addresses the problem we're all talking about, and that you eloquently and repeatedly highlight: how to make fashion week profitable for designers, which is the bottom line at the end of it all. Great post, enjoyed it!

Marion said...

Great article, Miss Mills!

Lauren Starr said...

This was great. Relevant and so true! I'll never do another Fashion week. So much time, work and money and no return. They don't bring actual sales. Love the idea of something truly alternate.

janmalan said...

You have great insight! Alternative ideas brings progress, collective consciousness will reveal a new way of doing things. Watch this space!

Thando said...

Inspiring article Milli, I can’t comment on all of it... I appreciate fashion but I don’t know the inner workings of the industry... I agree with you a lot on the following.

1. Apprenticeship - I think its time we made this a legitimate way for getting skilled. There are a lot of trades that I have an interest in and would love to learn, but I can't quit my job, bills needs to be paid, going back to school is also not the best way to learn certain trades, and in most cases they are simply not offered on schools. I don’t see why one should go to do a 3 year fashion design course, when all they wanted was to be a stylist. Seeing those 5km queues at universities a few weeks ago was also sad really, people still think a degree is the only way out, I don’t blame them, there are limited options offered. We need artisans of all sorts. We need to learn from the Masters.

2. Culture Mecca - We are sitting on a mine of culture yet we look outward for inspiration. Its time we looked to our own for inspiration. If I may use Haldane Martins, Zulu Mama “woven” chair as an example. During our “bantu education” days :-p we had an arts and crafts class and we were taught how weave the very same way using grass and recycled plastic bags, we'd sell it for R40, he took inspiration and created a chair that goes for R4500. Haldane is doing what we should all be doing, he is not calling it the Zulu Mama chair because it sounds nice, that’s because he took inspiration from them. I'll admit business skills also need to be instilled.

3. E-Commerce and the internet – It’s time we took serious advantage of this. It's time we made it a basic, a must for every business, you can reach millions in seconds. With the internet, you never need to have a shop when starting up a business; you can work from but still reach millions.

4. The Agency – It is needed, start it up Milli. I'll join you, and work for free :-) I'll be an apprentice.

Nicole Danielle said...

You inspire me.

Milisuthando Bongela said...

You guys, thanks so much for your responses, it's always so wonderful to hear what people think. I think the onus is on each of us to do what we can at this point. And it doesn't have to cost anything but silent dedication and a will to make our country a better place for us and our children to live in. Thando, girl I'm already doing what I can, you're more than welcome to join me or spread the word or let us know what you're up to and what you need some help with! The internet is our biggest asset as the millenial generation - the possibilities are endless and my experiences with it are testament of what can be done if you've got an idea and a platform to parade it on! Jan, I'm happy and honoured that you even read this!xxx

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