Craft on the catwalk

2011-04-01 13:50

When fashion gurus see ­intricate details such as beading, smocking and knitting on haute couture on the catwalks, they
assume the designers deserve the credit. However, it is often the job of specialist crafters to transform the designer’s concept into a coherent pattern on a garment.

“In South Africa, we have highly skilled crafters,” says designer Clive Rundle.

“The only problem is that the fashion industry has turned to machinery and technology that can do the same job as the human hand.”

The avant garde designer is currently working with Gauteng-based crafters on his upcoming spring/summer collection that will be shown at SA Fashion Week, which kicks off on Friday.

While many in the industry may use machines, there are still a number of designers who use skilled crafters to give their ­designs that personal touch.

For the past six years, SA ­Fashion Week and the Department of Arts and Culture have been working on the Fashion Fusion Project, which brings rural crafters and designers together.

Founder of SA Fashion Week ­Lucilla Booysen says: “So far, we have achieved the goal we were aiming for of creating sustainable income for the various crafters.”

The project has established a ­national network of groups in all nine provinces and, according to the founders, has empowered 900 crafters and assisted 40 designers to develop collections with a uniquely “made in RSA” signature.

To help the products reach ­international markets, a US-based stylist and designer, Linda Trau, has been invited to set up an ­export agency for local designers.

While the benefits for designers are clear, the crafters have further to go to broaden their craft to ­generate income.

Crafter Mamosebetsi Ndlovu has been under Rundle’s tutelage since 2003. Since she joined his company, she’s gone from knitting and ­embroidering to learning the ins and outs of fashion design.

“I have since started my own business,” says Ndlovu.

“I’m still trying to learn everything I can from Clive (Rundle), especially all the hard work that goes into putting together a collection.”

Adds Rundle: “I do believe the Fashion Fusion Project helps guide crafters to see some aspects of their craft through someone else’s eyes.

“While some will manage to make some profit, others will struggle because designers don’t have time to wait for things to be done by hand.

“If I have an order for a thousand pairs of pants that need little flowers stitched on the knees, for example, it will be difficult for a crafter to finish the work on time.”

Elaine du Plessis, designer of Western Cape-based Christopher Storm, says they use the crafters all the time.

“We always go to them to work on most of our stuff because not only does it create jobs, but it adds a personal touch to our bespoke items. People want to feel special and know that their handmade clothing was made with care,” she says.
Du Plessis adds that the winter collection will feature information about the crafters who worked on the garments.

“We constantly come up with ways we can use our crafters and, luckily, because they are a big group, they can handle the number of requests we put to them,” says Du Plessis.

Other brands, such as Stoned Cherrie, Lunar, Two and Colleen ­Eitzen, still use the crafters they were introduced to when they took part in the project.

Although her designs lean more towards clean, classic lines, ­Hangwani Nengovhela of Rubicon says she also uses crafters to help with the beading on her ethnic collections.
“As a designer and business­woman, I understand that the bottom line should matter and that there is machinery that can be used instead of people. How­ever, I made the decision to take part in uplifting the local economy by creating jobs,” she says.

One person who went on to use his craft in an evolving way is Thami Maseko, who used to do the batik (a painting and fabric-dyeing technique) for Gauteng-based ­Sizakele Creations.

He has since moved to Mpumalanga where he found another job.

“Even though I work full-time, I still use the skills I learnt while I was at Sizakele. Painting is my ­talent and now I get to use it to make wall hangings, which I sell for a profit,” says Maseko.

Booysen says: “Obviously one shouldn’t expect to see a million-rand industry pop up. It takes time and it’s a work in progress. We also constantly try to find ways to improve the project and find a way to empower more crafters. But it’s all baby steps.”

As consumers become more aware of sustainability and shun mass-produced goods, perhaps the moment for local crafters to shine – and make a good living – may still be on the horizon.

» SA Fashion Week is on next weekend at the Shine Studios in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Visit

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