Fashion’s First Lady

2010-10-02 12:39

Lucilla Booyzen, decked out in fashion’s ubiquitous black and sporting her trademark bright red bob, is putting a gaggle of impossibly tall, staggeringly beautiful young women through their paces just hours before the start of South African Fashion Week.

“Next girl! Next girl!” Booyzen yells into a hand-held mike as one stoney-faced beauty precedes another down the H-shaped ramp constructed upstairs at Arts on Main in downtown Joburg.

“Take bigger steps, Poppie!” she tells a straggler who threatens the perfect symmetry of her running order.

It’s the director of South African Fashion Week (SAFW) at her scary best: sharp, emphatic, demanding and unsmiling.

Her assistant, Sharon Ndzamela, also top-to-toe in black, scurries about doing her bidding.

Booyzen, who has a cold and who is fast losing her voice, finally loses her cool with noisy spectators whose din forces her to strain her weakened voice even more.
“You guys over there. Out! Walk out! I mean it, walk out!” Dutifully they file out.

Booyzen is widely credited as being the brains and the brawn that put South African fashion on the map.

She is regarded as being the woman who took local fashion from an occasional display of pretty frocks set to music to an industry that has grown and ­produced household names now taken for granted.

In a twist of irony, Booyzen, who this week tucked her 13th SAFW under her belt, scooped her first major business award in the same year that she lost her biggest business sponsor, Sanlam.

Booyzen, the Shoprite/Checkers woman of the year for 2010 says there’s nothing sinister about Sanlam’s absence at the event this year. Their contract had simply expired.

Losing a major sponsor for an affair that costs roughly R6 million didn’t faze Booyzen – a fact that doesn’t surprise industry insiders such as writer and fashion journalist, Adam ­Levin.

“Lucilla lost her sponsor, but she just got right back on the wagon and moved SAFW to Arts on Main. She’s a visionary. She sees fashion all the way through from the art form to the entrepreneurial activity,” says Levin.
She chose Arts on Main – a multi-purpose artistic space in City and Suburban that ­houses studios, residential and retail space – because she felt it was time to bring art back into fashion, says Booyzen.

“Thirteen years ago we had no industry, so we took the art out of fashion in order to ­develop designers who produced well-made garments that could sell. Now we can afford to bring art back. Fashion starts with art,” says Booyzen.

Her resilience can probably be attributed to the fact that she comes from hardy stock.

The only daughter of a farmer and a typist, Booyzen grew up on a farm called Garsfontein outside Pretoria.
Her family were tough, but they were stylish, says Booyzen.
“I come from a fashion-conscious family. My mother never wore pants once her whole life; neither did my aunt or grandmother,” says Booyzen of her mother, who worked as a typist for the departments of Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Maths and Music at the University of South Africa.

From her stylish family she also inherited an eye for detail, which served her well when she went into her first profession – teaching.

Booyzen taught physical education at Goudveld Hoërskool, where most of her students came from the Abraham Kriel Kinderhuis, a home for underprivileged children.

Teaching, says Booyzen, taught her the fine art of multitasking.

“When you’re a school teacher you have to do everything?– the play, athletics, school ­concerts.

“When we had athletics, I would go out and buy the ribbons so all the girls looked exactly the same. I bought the shampoo to wash their hair, and when those girls got into the kombi they all looked beautiful.”

Booyzen’s life changed when a talent scout spotted her.

From age 20, she worked both as a ramp model and as a house model.

“A house model is someone who is the right size to wear samples produced in the factory. I was a perfect size 34.”
During these seven years Booyzen became familiar with the backroom business of ­fashion.

“I loved going to the factories, watching the garments getting cut and stitched, listening to the designers discussing buttons and pricing. And then going to boutiques to sell the finished product.”

When her stint as a model ended, Booyzen produced fashion shows for 15 years. It was then that she earned her reputation for being as tough as nails and uncompromising in her pursuit of her vision.

“If there wasn’t a woman as pushy as Lucilla Booyzen, South African fashion wouldn’t be where it is today,” says Levin.

“In a market saturated with fashion weeks, we take them for granted. Today every dorp has got a fashion week, but 13 years ago when Lucilla began SAFW, there was only ­Milan, London, New York and Paris. South Africa was ahead of its time because of ­Lucilla. She is critical to the fashion equation in South Africa,” says Levin.

Levin, like many who’ve known her for years, says there is a disconnect between Booyzen’s reputation and the real woman.

“She’s not malicious. She might not always be tactful and might piss people off, but she has a vision in mind.”
Ndzamela, a former model who has shadowed Booyzen for three weeks prior to fashion week, says Booyzen’s tough exterior hides a soft centre.

This is borne out by the adoration evident on the faces of all the black-clad SAFW ­volunteers who scurry about ensuring the four-day event runs to Booyzen’s meticulous standards.

From Wednesday until yesterday Booyzen was ever present and watchful, with her hand firmly on the tiller of the 13th SA Fashion Week. Throughout she’s sharp, emphatic, ­demanding and mostly unsmiling.

Thanks to our interview, she is 15 minutes late for a show and rushing through the backstage labyrinth to get to the front of house.

An eager young staffer and would-be fashionista rushes up to her and asks her to tie a rather complicated neck frill.

The Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year stops and breaks into a broad smile before ­indulgently taking a moment to tie the bow just right.

Just as she once did for her girls at Goudveld Hoërskool.

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