Fashion Week May Be Falling Apart At The Seams

After an underwhelming SAMW a disillusioned Xzavier Zulu speaks with designers Anees Petersen and Lukhanyo Mdingi

By Xzavier Zulu | Photographs: SDR Photo

The title of this article is somewhat dramatic, with a dash of "spice", but I feel it's entirely necessary in order to speak to the issue at hand and hopefully reiterate the point that Fashion Week in this country is to be rethought in its execution and intent. Keyword being intent.

Since its inception in the mid-1800s, early executions and concepts of Fashion Week reveal that it was to serve as a means for French couture houses to showcase collections to their most prized clients. Years later and the first American fashion show was held in a New York City specialty store, Elrich Brothers. By 1943 what we now call New York Fashion Week was established. As the success of Fashion Week grew in America, key cities around the world adopted the concept and the likes of Paris Fashion Week (1945), Milan Fashion Week (1958) and London Fashion Week (1984) come to challenge and grow the initial concept. 

The French couture industry (an exclusive and somewhat secretive world at the time) in the mid-1800s was birthed as a direct result of the platform and since then shows have become the primary platform for buyers from around the world to attend and purchase designers' collections to then retail in their stores, typically six months from the showcase itself. 

South Africa is home to two of Africa's most prominent fashion week platforms, South African Menswear Week (SAMW) and African Fashion International (AFI). SAWM being "Africa's only stand-alone platform dedicated to the development and promotion of menswear within the African continent," takes place twice a year in Cape Town over three days and showcases the collections of menswear designers.

African Fashion International (AFI) was "established as part of an unequivocal determination to propel and restore refined African fashion brands on the global stage," and with their "understanding of quality and craftsmanship, a point of view that is unique coupled with Africa's heritage and history," their aim to be pioneers in luxury African fashion has  become clearly evident with an understanding for production that is world-class and consistently unmatched. 

To revisit the title of this piece then, 'Fashion Week May Be Falling Apart At The Seams,' although not entirely evident, is more a concern than a question or statement.

At the beginning of this month SAMW hosted a curated offering of menswear designers and brands showcasing their SS19 collections. In the past SAMW has seen prominent local designers like Lukhanyo Mdingi, Rich Mnisi, Nao Serati and the high-impact "Cornerstore Slot" – which saw veteran streetwear brand 2-Bop showcase alongside peers Young&Lazy and Sol-Sol whilst cheered by the Cape Town youth and friends of the respective brands. However, by comparison this year's SAMW seemed quite dull.

"The last time I showed at SAMW was in 2016," says Anees Petersen of Young&Lazy. "Showcasing on the SAMW platform isn't worthwhile for me. I feel like there isn't much buying power on the platform, besides the Superbalists and the Sprees of the industry who are sitting front row and looking at the same designers that they've already worked with, what's the point? Obviously to show a new collection, but the reality is that I'd look to show a new collection to sell, to get into stores and to basically retail. That being said, I'm quite sure the platform might work for other brands in different fashion worlds, but for me it's just not sustainable." 

Having spoken to Anees Petersen and select designers within the South African industry who have showcased on the SAMW platform before and asked not to be named, it became clear that 2016 was the last year that many of them had participated. That year was undeniably a special one with Lukhanyo Mdingi and Nicholas Coutts showcasing their collaborative collection, AKJP, and the famed "Cornerstore Slot" presenting the respective collections of 2Bop, Young&Lazy and Sol-Sol.

Since 2016 the SAMW platform has quite simply become tired and although the likes of Orange Culture, Tokyo James and Nao Serati undeniably add to the overall credibility of the event, and continue to show on the platform, it's almost unfair for them to continue to do so when it's not a fair representation of the South African fashion industry to the local and international audience.

"Purely through my own experience, it's quite an investment to showcase on the platform," says Lukhanyo Mdingi." To then find myself having not only done my part in creating this premium and considered collection, to essentially showcase to bloggers and influencers, who do not sustain my business, I couldn't continue with it. It became easier to work on my own schedule and create my own opportunities to reach my audience."

The fashion industry continues to evolve and as it does so does consumer culture. That's no more evident than when retailers turn to influencers to represent their brands and hopefully in-turn leverage off their assumed credibility. The use of models to simply "model" may not be enough anymore, while the use of influencers over models could be hurting the industry.

Then there's people within the industry looking to create influencer opportunities within their respective roles in their places of employment. When this happens, who is actually doing their job while they're busy "influencing"? Some fashion editors seem to spend more time competing with other influencers, instead of commenting on the shows, sharing their opinions and fostering introspection. Which is perhaps why our industry is clearly in disarray. 

"Once again, we are in South Africa," says Anees Petersen. "We aren't in New York. Our industry and ways of working aren't the same and our retailers aren't either. There's no Selfridges in this country. Our front row doesn't help either, when its seemingly entirely made up by bloggers, fashion editors, influencers and the likes who do nothing for the retail aspect for my brand. A representative from a major retailer should be sitting front row, as there could then be more opportunity to either stock my brand in their stores, or even hire me as a consultant."

Platforms like SAMW and others aren't helping either, with a greater focus on the "hype" of the platform through influencers and front row than in-depth reviews, commentary and business of fashion-like education on the designers, their respective brands, production challenges and even challenging the production of the show.

There is a shared responsibility to the designers by SAMW, as there would be by the designers to the audience, and somewhere along the lines every party has let the other down equally.

"It really goes far beyond just the production of the SAMW platform," says Lukhanyo Mdingi. "Four seasons in my label has a set foundation to work from, and we don't necessarily need to do another fashion week as the industry already knows who we are. I'm more interested in finding another distribution outlet, which I can find on my own. There aren't enough distribution outlets locally to cater to what I'm trying to do. Even if it was AFI or SAMW, it wouldn't be to my benefit to showcase."

There's a dialogue needed between designers and the organizers of these platforms. Which should be had sooner rather than later, as it's clear that the industry is falling apart. If our industry is to grow and become as sustainable as those abroad, it's a shared concern and priority to challenge our respective efforts in doing so.

"In four seasons of showing on the SAMW platform, besides the press, I've yet to receive any buying interest," says Lukhanyo Mdingi. "Or even have people eager to invest in the brand, as I have experienced when having showcased in London and Italy." 

For lesser known designers in particular, the shows are a direct source of income. They're all a designer may have to present their brand on a commercial platform. And although that may not be the case for every designer, it will look to rob us of future designers if it's not a platform that nurtures growth for the industry on all fronts.

"If I were to show again I'd like to be a part of everything and carry elements from my collection onto the platform," says Anees Petersen. "There's no point in me considering everything for my collection and then the very production of the platform itself doesn't lend to it or allow you to carry through your efforts. Internationally, the very production of shows are constantly being challenged, whether it be shows being held in alleyways, outdoors during the day, or people standing throughout. It's unheard of until it's done. It's not about the platform with the most production budget. There's opportunity there." 

In conclusion, I'd simply asked each designer if they would showcase at SAMW again? Their answers were as follows.

"The reality is I will not be showcasing on any South African fashion platform until I feel like I have a big enough audience," was Lukhanyo Mdingi's reply. "My audience is way too small here. I don't have enough people that can come to my show to look to buy something from my collection. That's just not my reality. So what's the point of showcasing when I will be showcasing to a market that doesn't exist? I'm glad I've showcased before, but it's not where me or my business are anymore." 

"I appreciate the platform and understand its place in the local industry, but I don't think so," said Anees Petersen. "If I were to do another show, it would be as I have done before with Nike. That was organic and I was equally involved in communicating my brand message as they did theirs. I showcased to everyday people and not the industry. They are the people who matter."

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