Is the way South Africans consume fashion week failing our local designers?

Gert-Johan Coetzee Show during Day 2 of the SA Fashion Week (SAFW) Autumn/Winter 2020
Gert-Johan Coetzee Show during Day 2 of the SA Fashion Week (SAFW) Autumn/Winter 2020

It's been exactly a week since South African Fashion Week (SAFW) was in session. Just another week before that, it was African Fashion International (AFI) Fashion Week. All this after we were recovering from a collective itis of eagerly binging on international runway shows from the four fashion capitals of the world.

READ MORE: Issey Miyake, Balenciaga, and the Chanel show runway-crasher put the fun back in fashion this Paris Fashion Week 

However, the appetite for local fashion shows appears to have been not as big as it may have been for the likes of New York, Milan, London, and Paris. With less than 100 voters on our poll about local fashion weeks (AFI and SAFW) versus a total of just under 500 votes on the international fashion week poll on W24, it's clear that our gaze is still aspirational rather than supportive. 

Now you might immediately retort "obviously" at this point given that designers who show at international fashion weeks have generous budgets for production and sets, they're legacy labels, and the audiences abroad simply have the means to consume each collection buffet-style. 

In addition to this, fashion media abroad is clear on their mandate - review shows with archival knowledge of each designer's previous offerings. The purpose of this being to educate, thereby allowing for an information to consumption conversion. You would think that these reviews and the turnaround thereof would therefore be a seminal part of every fashion week, especially since instant gratification made way for the runway-to-retail phenomenon. 

A quick explainer - See Now, Buy Now was the realisation that the fashion industry's six-month lead time between season previews and retail availability had become outmoded. Burberry was one of the early adopters and was soon joined by Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger. 

SAFW also has a similar model in place with their Trade Show, which according their website is "designed to be an intimate, networking-friendly and neutral trading ground for all designers in Africa. It offers a broad spectrum of the various designers’ pricing, optimising the buyers’ purchasing power and boutique owners’ attendance. The exhibiting brands are carefully curated and are retail ready with sound business processes in place, which will enable them to deliver according to order." 

They also report that in October 2017, the Trade Show "showed an encouraging escalation in buyers and boutique owners visiting from all over the country."

Additionally, in the lead-up to SAFW Autumn/Winter 2020, the organisation announced that it has committed itself to a five-year plan to spearhead the development of an ecologically-based and sustainable local design culture by 2025. An announcement one might have assumed would have been magnetic to ticket sales for this past Fashion Week. You know, since the fashion community is reducing, reusing and recycling this conversation of late. All well-meaning, of course. 

READ MORE: Save the planet, but make it fashion: SA Fashion Week commits to a sustainable fashion 5-year plan 

But despite the 22-year-old SA Fashion Week's efforts to be on par with their international counterparts, it's clear that South Africa is just not ready to eat what they're serving. And this is no fault of a singular aspect of SA's fashion culture - this is a layered problem. 

While we can conclude that whatever is rotten in the state of fashion is ultimately failing our local designers, we cannot assign all blame to the accompanying pillars that make up the fashion community - fashion media, audience and organisers. I'm not one to knock creative minds because I know the process has its fair share of thorns, but we cannot feign ignorance about the stifled sense of innovation on the runway.

That is something I won't dwell on, though. Rather I avert my gaze to a handful of designers who stretched their fabric to showcase fresh collections - ERRE, Thabo Makhetha, House of Lucent, Mantsho, Lunar, and Gert Johan-Coetzee who seems to be taking more pleasantly surprising risks (excluding those baseball Tees) recently. 

ERRE installation 

Erre SA Fashion Week

Thabo Makhetha 

SA Fashion Week

House of Lucent 

Lucent, SA Fashion Week


SA fashion Week


SA Fashion Week

Gert-Johan Coetzee  

Gert Johan coetzee

READ MORE: SA Fashion Week dishes the inside hack on how to enjoy the shows like an A-lister and commits to a 5-year sustainability plan 

Perhaps as the fashion media, in all our perception-shaping and the fatigue thereof, are not doing our bit to adequately educate South Africans on the above collections they're scrolling past on Instagram. Are we giving them the show notes? Is there even an appetite for this kind of education or do people want to momentarily gush over a few pictures just to say they did it? 

Are locals there for the show or to be the show? 

I strongly encourage that attendees dress up to see fashion week shows, as I've said before, there's space to herald both runway and street style fashion in this scene. 

In their Fashion Week guidelines, SAFW reiterated that "stylish [yet] considerate is the millennial way," suggesting that attendees ought to be mindful of not obscuring anyone's view or talking during the show. "The collections are the stars of the show. By all means sparkle, but do so discreetly," one of their rules read. 

With that noted, I didn't spot anyone adorned in any garment that would "obscure anyone's view" or any ensemble that made us forget (even briefly) why we were all gathered on a Sandton rooftop. Maybe the plea was heard. 

Local fashion weeks have lost their charm and while there is no definitive answer to the questions posed here, there is an evident impact on designer awareness and we're all to blame, albeit disproportionately so. 

We keep saying "Africa your time is now" and wear it on a T-shirt, but what good is that mantra if we only remember it when international eyes are on us? 

Images: SA Fashion Week, Gallo

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