Fashion in SA will flourish by design, says pioneer.

by Sue Blaine

The idea for a fashion week came to Lucilla Booyzen in 1984, when she realised the need for a platform for South African fashion based on business.

If SA wants its fashion to flourish, it needs to jettison the idea that the industry should be manufacturing-led, says SA Fashion Week director, Lucilla Booyzen.

SA’s fashion design industry was almost threadbare when Booyzen launched the first event with 17 designers 18 years ago. It is a much richer weave now — almost 40 designers will show their collections at the Autumn/Winter 2016 Fashion Week from October 21-24.

While Booyzen, who founded Fashion Week, believes manufacturing’s dominance hampers innovation and development, she is not saying they are completely to blame. “We didn’t always have the designers, and I do feel that things are looking up.”

These days, some design businesses — such as Rubicon, Sober, Colleen Eitzen, Gert-Johan Coetzee and Black Coffee — have enough custom to make it worthwhile for a manufacturer to print fabric runs to their designs.

Booyzen started SA Fashion Week to give the fashion industry a business-to-business platform on which buyers and designers could get together, in the process boosting business for both.

She points to the phenomenal success of Milan’s fashion industry.

“When they turned their industry around, they focused on their designers. Manufacturing doesn’t take a lesser spot, but it follows design. In SA, the manufacturers buy samples internationally and copy them here. I would rather have the manufacturers being inspired by the designers … by the soul of the country. That’s why the fashion weeks play such a huge role in Australia, London, the US, Italy, Germany,” she says.

With manufacturing calling the shots, SA’s fashion designers are often stymied when it comes to securing government funding, which is more focused on supporting manufacturers, says Booyzen.

Also, the runs of fabric they require are often so small that they are not worth a manufacturer’s while compared with orders from department stores.

Designers who can’t secure fabric cannot guarantee supply to buyers who place bigger orders. But, Booyzen says there are benefits to SA’s fledgling status in the global fashion world.

“We’re a very young industry. We’re babies taking baby steps and that’s to our advantage. The rules are not set. It is hard for someone in Paris to get in (to the fashion world) because it is well-established, the space is hogged by so many big names. Our advantage is that we are focusing on the SMMEs (small, micro and medium enterprises) and building them.”

SA Fashion Week has 403 designers on its database, 365 in womenswear and 66 in menswear, plus 770 womenswear and 160 menswear boutiques. A survey found that 930 boutiques were at least interested in buying local.

Designers most often start with bespoke items, but start to make money with ready-to-wear garments, says Booyzen. When demand is high enough for them to open their own stores, the profit margins are higher. This has already happened for a fair number of womenswear designers.

SA Fashion Week has showed menswear since its inception, and introduced a menswear competition in 2013. “Now the designers have grown. Sheldon (Kopman) of Naked Ape has a shop in the (Rosebank) Mews (in Johannesburg) now. He’s selling ready-to-wear. That’s the future, but it takes time.”

Much of SA Fashion Week’s work goes into readying designers for the international market, says Booyzen. In 2012, she and Annette Pringle-Kölsch established The Fashion Agent, which markets designers and provides a buffer between them and the boutiques.

“We do all the nasty stuff like demanding payment from buyers, and pushing designers to produce,” says Pringle-Kölsch.

In 2013, Booyzen established Runway Online, a 24-hour “virtual runway” from which people can buy next season’s statement pieces from 15 top designers, each of whom will show five pieces on the website during Fashion Week.

Very few designers, if any, are ready for any of the international fashion weeks, which is another mistaken assumption government entities make when seeking to boost the fashion industry.

“I say that creating an opportunity for a South African designer at a top Fashion Week is like sending someone into the Rugby World Cup without rugby boots,” says Booyzen, who has produced shows in SA, other parts of Africa, Europe, the US and Asia, although never at a fashion week.

“You cannot be taken seriously if you cannot deliver, and deliver in the (required) quantities. Overseas designers don’t show their collections first, they try to get as many tear sheets (pages in a fashion magazine featuring their work) as possible…. You have to create a buzz about yourself, enough interest, then only can you take a collection to a show. Most global designers don’t show at a fashion week; it’s too expensive. That’s the mistake we make in SA, we believe showing at an international fashion week translates into business. It does not. It translates into the fashion world knowing that we don’t know.”

Booyzen was a physical education, geography and biology teacher in Mayfair, Johannesburg, when she was scouted as a model and entered the world that would become her life. She worked as a model in the 1980s when the local fashion industry was, she says, “absolutely incredible”. While working as an in-house model for manufacturers, she gained insight into that side of the industry. She then moved into show production.

“From 1993 or 1994, all the shops of South African designers ceased to be. The big department stores took over and we had nothing. When I started Fashion Week, we had very few people and most were making one-offs. The Fair Lady Designer Awards and a few fashion magazines kept interest in South African designers going.”

The idea for Fashion Week was actually an old one for Booyzen. “In 1984, I went on a fashion-buying tour — London, Germany, Italy, Paris — and I realised that we would never have an industry if we didn’t have a platform for South African fashion based on business. But the political climate was just not right. In 1997, I was a producer and I literally woke up one morning and decided we had to have a fashion week.” By August of that year, models were on the runway in a marquee in what is now Nelson Mandela Square at Sandton City. She learnt “how to create business opportunities and income streams for people; how to create a brand that sponsors and consumers want to be associated with”.

“Even now, only a small percentage of people in SA know where to buy South African fashion…. If there was a government strategy in place that included the creative fashion design industry, there would be more money available to market the designers, but we are very happy with what we have achieved.”