8 SA designers on business, inspiration + optimism

Words: Daniël Geldenhuys | Images: Luca Vincenzo, Africa Fashion Exchange + Supplied

You may say South African designers are better equipped than most to deal with a national lockdown during a global pandemic – they’re no strangers to uncertainty, frequently innovate from necessity and are well-versed in navigating issues triggered by forces beyond their control. But that doesn’t make the current climate any easier. Their small businesses are the most vulnerable amid the unfolding fashion retail crash, making the plight for their support more urgent than ever.

Milliner Crystal Birch has removed her fiancé from his man cave. She needed a working space separate from the home school in her living room. “I brought in some art and plants to motivate me to stay focused,” she mails. No doubt they cheer her along as she slogs through piles of emergency funding paperwork for her 38 staff members at The Hat Factory. The process is draining, “but knowing it’s for someone else’s livelihood has put things into perspective very quickly.”


“Before lockdown, we tried to divide the work between the tailors, seamstresses as well as myself so that we were all able to work from home,” reports Throwaway Twenty’s Rome Wepener. Selfi’s Celeste Arendse is collaborating with the textile designer Sibabalwe Ndlwana on her upcoming spring collection. “She has a loom at home and is able to weave and send images of her process. We communicate via WhatsApp and video call to discuss the collection.” ALC Menswear’s Brendan Sturrock works remotely with his pattern maker, though with each garment they reach the inevitable stage that demands closer contact. “My studio staff are not able to work from home,” says Margot Molyneux. “Partly because there are many people involved in each stage of our production chain and partly due to the fact that we require specialised machinery for each stage of production.”


Lockdown has positioned designers to reinforce their digital presence. “Our online connection to our community is our only currency right now,” WhatsApps Artclub and Friends founder Robyn Keyser. Aside from working on his website, Masa Mara’s Eli Gold is using this time to focus on business planning. For Arendse, it’s about rebirth. “I'm looking forward to letting certain things go – things that don’t serve the business.” Molyneux echoes the sentiment, citing a “leaner, stronger” plan with “a clearer understanding of its purpose and position in our marketplace”.


“Every day I wonder about what things are going to ‘look’ like in a month, three months, six months and in a year,” says Keyser. “The biggest challenge is planning, when your timeline is so uncertain.” Once all of this is over, “our biggest challenge will be getting consumers back to the place where they feel they need a huge red dress with a bow on the shoulder,” WhatsApps Neo Serati Mofammere. “We will have suffered huge revenue loss,” mails Sturrock, “so being strategic about what we put into store couldn’t be more important. I do think that a calm approach is the best way.”


“We’ve come a long way as human beings,” says Gold. “Together we can conquer anything.” His sentiment applies to everything from flattening the curve to reviving the local fashion economy. Wepener is hoping for “a massive shift towards slow fashion and the rise of designers and entrepreneurs who have a real story behind their garments and brands.” It’s a source of hope for Mofammere, too. “I’ve got my fingers crossed that South African consumers will support local business first and vice versa. I’m really excited to see what comes after this.”

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