The Rajah returns to rule

2012-03-02 10:09

“Money screams, wealth whispers and my collections always whisper. It’s the people around me that scream.”

Fashion designer extraordinaire, Gavin Rajah’s words set the theme for our conversation as we sit in his opulent studio in the Cape Town CBD, where I get a sneak preview of his latest couture collection. He’ll officially reveal it at the upcoming Mercedes-Benz Joburg Fashion Week.

It’s been three years since Rajah has showcased in Johannesburg; three years of fashion audiences being subjected to dramatic shows featuring orchestras and mini concerts by local bands and singers. Often, the exhibitionism surpassed the clothes on show.

“The Rajah” himself has staged his fair share of drama over the years. In 2009 he moved his fashion show from the main venue, the Cape Town Convention Centre, to the BMW Auto Atlantic showroom. In Joburg, his models walked the runway to the sound of a live drum band whose members wore blue jeans and came standard with taunt torsos. But the designer seems ready to embrace gentility.

“Joburg now has this tendency to lean towards theatricality, which is great, but you have to have the clothes to back that up,” he says.

“Theatrics can be great in some instances, but also superfluous. If you’re going to have a 21-gun salute and 20 000 soldiers walking down the ramp, you had better have something huge to follow up on that hype. As maverick as you want to be, at the end of the day, you’re still accountable to your
clients and the world that operates in the fashion business.”

We hope designers are taking notes. Explaining his shows, which come complete with OTT invitations, Rajah says: “With my last two collections, we focused on making the shows more interesting by telling a story. But the main thing was to make the clothes the main feature. I refuse to spend months of hard work on something only to let it be distracted by fireworks. It’s all about clothing. It’s not about celebrities either.”

Rajah concedes there will be some flash in his presentation for his eagerly awaited return to the Joburg stage, “but you’re definitely not going to get gratuitous rah-rah. It has to go with my collection and it will be on point and as sharp as the collection.”

There’s no denying that his garments are a magnet for the moneyed set – just don’t ask him to name drop. “Maybe back in the day of my youth I would have, but now I don’t do that any more. Not only is it tacky but it’s out of respect for my clientele.

“Most of them are not well known in the celebrity sense of the word, but they are people who are wealthy and don’t want others to know how they’re spending money. Celebrities that people write about are not my clients. They don’t buy stuff. In any case, how many can really afford to buy my stuff?”

Coming from anyone else, this would sound insufferably egotistical. But as Rajah shows off his latest collection, it’s easy to see why he puts such high value on his garments. He lovingly caresses a delicate lace swathe that he and his team have meticulously constructed into roses and, with flourish, shows me a dress made entirely of those roses. It’s followed by a beaded piece inspired by an insect exoskeleton and an embellished bodice which was done by hand.

“The workmanship is very detailed. Once a person sees how we’ve done this, it’s when they understand why the dress took 50 hours to make. I’m comfortable with people coming backstage asking to see the clothes up close. I make sure the finishings on every garment are faultless,” he says.

The dresses are part of the collection inspired by “a summer rose garden fading into fall”.

“This collection embraces inspiration from Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus,” he adds.

The invitation is a miniature artwork in the form of an old notebook, which he hopes will invite people to take a walk through the garden and make sketches.

“The collection is an exploration of botanical drawings of roses, and anatomical drawings of insects and reptiles. There is beauty in everything whether it be decay, preservation or death. The traditional cultural and literary references to flora symbolises love, innocence and fragrance. It’s juxtaposed over the often macabre cabinet of curiosities I find fascinating. In some way it reflects the passage of life, a fall from innocence, a multitude of experiences both good and bad.”

After his poetic rendition, it’s clear that Rajah puts much thought into his collections to make sure they tell a coherent story. It has happened often enough that a designer will show a disjointed collection that leaves the audience scratching their heads.

As Rajah explains, when it comes to editing his collection, he is often brutal. And even the most high fashion pieces are cut if they are not a perfect fit to a theme.

The word “couture” is akin to stoking a a coal fire in Rajah. As far as he’s concerned, the word is used too liberally in the local industry. “It’s bizarre how all of a sudden every designer considers themselves a couturier. It doesn’t work like that.

“My definition of couture is more French and European. You cannot consider yourself a couturier unless you’ve shown in places like Paris. And there are certain rules to producing couture.

“You don’t fit a client with a fabric that is already cut. You cut the fabric on the client. There are rules in terms of how many pieces you show and the way they’re finished. My couture is of a pure kind. It’s not feathers or weird things. It’s about a new sense of luxury that’s taking over the world of fashion. It’s more restrained and controlled. It’s not about wearing logos on the outside or about being flashy and in-your-face.”

Rajah says while most designers try to keep up with trends, his high fashion collections do not follow any. However, he adds, “most of us designers buy fabrics from around the world from the same companies. That’s why most design houses end up featuring the same colour palettes on the
runways.

“Ultimately, couture is always one step ahead when it comes to what people are wearing. Couture leads and ready-to-wear follows,” he says.

As he preaches the wonders of couture, I wonder who randomly buys expensive gowns they’ll wear once or twice. Rajah doesn’t waste time explaining. “My collections are for people who are discerning in terms of what they wear.”

Rajah says he is also very specific about who wears his couture. “The person has to have the right profile and the personality needed to carry off a Gavin Rajah couture garment. My clients like the idea of investment dressing. You buy a well-made designer couture piece that you can wear for a long time and keep for years for your future generations.”

» Joburg Fashion Week is from Wednesday to Saturday at the Sandton Convention Centre
» Rajah’s show is on Saturday at the Hyde Park Southern Sun. Tickets to the show are already sold out


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