Our local fashion industry might still be in its infancy but it doesn’t lack catwalks to show its new collections. A week apart, AFI Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and SA Fashion Week rolled out their carpets to welcome new and existing designers for two separate parades of fashion. While they are not to be compared or mixed up, the unbearable strangeness of the situation makes it impossible not to make the parallel. By EMILIE GAMBADE.
For the Fall/ Winter 2014 shows, the New York Fashion Week opened its democratic doors to more than 300 designers. Behind the scene, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the founder of the Fashion Calendar, 94-year old Ruth Finley, orchestrate the shows. Finley, based in her office on 87th Street, has been giving hints to editors and buyers for a trifling 65 years; she guides on who will be showing when, helps avoiding conflicts between brands and translates the fashion hubbub into some coherent schedule. Even with her iron hand and long experience, the event, officially sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, is sometimes chaotic, often overcrowded and always packed with shows that are not all up to catwalk standards. Yet, while New York Fashion Week is big, bold and busy, it fits into a coherent seven- to nine-day schedule.
In Paris, (breathe in) the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt à Porter, des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode “sets the fall-winter and spring-summer show calendars for Haute Couture, and women’s and men’s ready to wear”. The selection is drastic and elitist to “preserve Paris’ position as the world Capital of Fashion Design”. The shows are carefully organised throughout the city, and the Federation even offers transportation to journalists and buyers for a sleek week of fashion.
All the while London, led by the British Fashion Council, plays the role of an eccentric freak, bringing in the wild, the bonkers and the revolutionaries, it carefully plugs in its collections between New York and Milan, which is headed by the Camera Nazionale della Moda.
Despite the incredible extent of shows that stretch over four weeks and two continents, designers, stylists, buyers and editors are able to find their way through the many shows scheduled and draw the coming season’s trends from the collections they see. It’s packed but still consumable, it’s wide but accessible, thanks to individual organising bodies that take in consideration most of the industry’s players’ needs and expectations.
Locally, although the fashion industry is considerably smaller, fashion week(s) is and remains a headache: in Joburg, journalists, stylists, buyers and designers have to choose or sometimes have to split between AFI Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and SA Fashion Week. Without any official organisation to overlook and coordinate the tango of shows or even decide on the industry’s standards, designers present their collections at two separate events, sometimes at a week’s difference. To spice things up, the two events do not even follow the same calendar: between end of March and early April 2014, AFI presented the Autumn/Winter 2014 collections while SAFW rolled out the Spring/Summer 2014 ranges. Sister-fashion weeks also happen in Cape Town and Durban, creating even more hullabaloo in an already complex setting.
The irony is that both fashion weeks’ organisers bring something invaluable: SAFW Lucilla Booyzen’s expertise and her incredible knowledge of local design is bottomless. She has been working with the designers, hands-on, for over eighteen years and understands what is important for the industry, and consistently provides “a multi-faceted marketing platform for fashion designers based on established, international, best practice”.
AFI Precious Moloi-Motsepe’s main sponsor, Mercedes-Benz, puts the fashion week right on the international map, giving it an “official” stamp that SAFW won’t have even with Samsung as its sponsor. It also allows for bigger budgets to play with; while money doesn’t always (often) buy good taste, AFI can afford to produce distinctive shows under one roof, and still give the designers some freedom and originality.
Waiting for the two events to merge into one single strong South African fashion week, designers swing from one happening to another, in the stylish and mulishly bitchy shambles that is our fashion calendar, depending on their affinities, needs and collections.
Some are loyal, like Albertus Swanepoel at SAFW. For Spring/Summer 2014, he presented his third collection called “From Hoedspruit to Hawaii”; it was an attention-grabbing installation, with inflatable dolphins and balloons on top of each other in some kind of poolside pyramid, with outfits like visual bonbons. The designer used the traditional Shweshwe and tropical Hawaiian fabric to create relaxed silhouettes in pop colours, turquoise, red, splashes of orange and denim blue. It was certainly laid-back, so much that it lacked some sophistication, an extra touch of dazzle that would have made the collection special and unique. A most-wanted item was the brogues Swanepoel designed: the eyelets covered with fringed Shweshwe, it gave the shoes an African twist that was contemporary and fun.
Photo: Albertus Swanepoel: SAFW Joburg, Crowne Plaza, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
Photo: Albertus Swanepoel: Brogues with shweshwe, SAFW Joburg, Crowne Plaza, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
Clive Rundle is also a regular at SAFW and this season, he presented an all-white, black and brown collection titled “Swan”. Rundle does intellectual fashion: the clothes have a purpose, a raison d’être, be it through the cuts, the proportions or the excessive and, in this case, almost monochromatic layering, imperilling at times the silhouette. He doesn’t design around the body, he designs around the texture, the fabric, the cloth and the rest is his story, often supported by a precise soundtrack. This season, it translated into wrap dresses, wide-leg pants, layers, layers, layers and tight jacket buttoned at the waist; although it didn’t bear overstated epaulettes, it seemed to be designed for Rachael in Blade Runner.
Photo: Clive Rundle: SAFW Joburg, Crowne Plaza, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
Black Coffee’s installation had grandeur, models standing with their heads covered by lampshade-hats and the bodies held in architectural garments. There is no doubt that collection after collection Jacques van der Watt shows his talent and his ability to design beautifully crafted pieces. Yet there was an air of déjà-vu, as the designer once again played around geometrical appliqués and cut-outs, and weaved the fabric to create new textures. It lacked volume, exaggeration, and needed to let go from past familiarities to explore new territories.
Photo: Black Coffee: SAFW Joburg, Crowne Plaza, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
At MBFW, David Tlale is a constant and the week’s darling. Once again, the designer decided to show off site, this time at Mandela Square: the collection he presented for Fall/Winter 2014 was the one he showed at New York Fashion Week few weeks earlier. There, he spared the public any fuss and froufrou, as models walked the catwalk in his garments with no other theatrical element. And it was enough, for the collection was simply astonishing: knee-length pencil skirts with slightly exaggerated hips, cross over cape-top in nude and beige, perfectly fitted dress with inverted wing-sleeves, tone-on-tone two fabrics wrapped dress, blue and black puffed dress and coat, black cropped jacket with colourful lining, it was Tlale at his best, coherent, elegant and controlled. Why did he feel the necessity to transport the collection in the busy bedlam of Mandela Square, between escalators and walkers-by, surrounded by random fashion ‘protesters’ lifting signs that claimed, “the 21st century belongs to Africa” and “I love South Africa”? Unrestrained drama never benefited anyone and the collection got lost in the busy muddle of Mandela Square. Tlale would have been so much better off showing inside the impersonal albeit imposing Sandton Convention Centre; once again, the cliché adage ‘less is more’ has never been so damn fitting.
Photo: David Tlale: AFI MBFW Joburg, Mandela Square, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
Also showing off site and faithful to SAFW, Craig Jacobs for Fundudzi, presented his collection at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport. The designer explained that, “In 1994, [he] cast [his] vote 14,000 miles in a foreign land, and [remembers] wondering what it must feel like to be free in the country of [his] birth. It was only four years later, when [he] touched down on the tarmac at this very airport and [he] felt the warmth and openness [he] never remembered in [his] childhood that [he] could truly understand what freedom really means”. It was all pretty and touching, but how did it translate in terms of garments? Thankfully, Jacobs didn’t go for a literal interpretation, but rather some ethereal translation in acidulous colours. Some pieces looked gaudy (a little black dress with yellow fringes at the hem) while others could easily be worn in summer, somewhere between Coachella and Cape Town; here a soft baby pink jumpsuit with neon yellow seams; there, an A-line skirt with wide belt off the hips, in white and striped fabric. The setting didn’t add a particular theatrical element apart from a singular headache for driving 20km out of town in the middle of the day.
Photo: Fundudzi by Craig Jacobs: SAFW Joburg, OR Tambo International Airport, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
South African grande dame de la mode and fashion doyenne, Marianne Fassler, showed at MBFW once again this season and she didn’t disappoint. It’s difficult not to compare Fassler Autumn/Winter 2014 collection with Dame Vivienne Westwood Spring 2014 range: tartans, clash of prints and fabrics and controlled random seemed to be the backbone of the collection; although at Fassler, it was structured, less jetsam than Westwood, and models flashed up on the runway, with cropped capes wrapping the shoulders, tight trenches in patchwork of plaids and see-through tulle skirts.
Photo: Marianne Fassler: AFI MBFW Joburg, Sandton Convention Centre, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
Established designer Abigail Betz switched to MBFW after over fifteen fashion weeks with SAFW. Betz worked with artist Don Searll to create a hologram and a 3D movie showing actress Lalla Hirayama dressed as a sophisticated geisha. “Through the hologram and the 3D movie, [we] were able to show the dressing of Lalla, from underwear to fully dressed in just a few seconds, (it takes a minimum of 4 hours to get her dressed, this includes hair and makeup) carefully choreographed to showcase the garment [layer] after layer and its splendour.” Detached from any intellectual meaning, Betz simply wanted to explore new ways of designing and played with 3D techniques as an adventurous and inspiring path. Titled “Into The Future”, the collection symbolised “the moving of the brand into a new era of innovation”. Her range, a combination of wedding dresses in soft silks, duchess satins, delicately beaded and hand-dyed in various shades of pink, or wool capelettes, ankle-long brocade coats and metallic mini dress bore her romantic signature.
Photos: Abigail Betz AFI MBFW Joburg, Sandton Convention Centre, Simon Deiner / SDR Photo
In the wheeling and dealing that were fashion weeks, some interesting collections emerged. And this season (whichever season you decide to set for), AFI MBFW finally presented ranges that had oomph and cachet although it was sometimes lost in some random theatrical performance. DM
Coming next, in Part II: Fashion Week’s young and upcoming designers.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.