Backstage at SA Fashion Week the air is thick with the smell of hairspray, cigarettes and steam as near-invisible creases are coaxed out of designer creations. Black Coffee, Gert Johan Coetzee, Loxion Kulca, Lunar and Stoned Cherrie – these are the collections that the audience lining the catwalk are anxiously awaiting to see. Fashonistas, editors and bloggers: a slick gathering of the industry’s elite. But underneath this glossy affair, so much more is at stake than a designer’s reputation. The movers and shakers at SA Fashion Week are only the tip of a pyramid that is made up of thousands of seamstresses and factory workers in a local industry that is under siege.

Is South Africa’s design industry in crises? The numbers say: without a doubt.  

An industry coming apart at the seams

Backstage at SA Fashion Week the air is thick with the smell of hairspray, cigarettes and steam as near-invisible creases are coaxed out of designer creations. Black Coffee, Gert

Between January 2003 and June 2006, the local clothing, textile and footwear industries shed almost 65 000 jobs, according to figures released by Statistics SA. This was largely blamed on the increase in cheap imports from the Chinese market, and the three-year period saw hundreds of South Africa clothing and textile factories closing and workers being retrenched. Hot on the cheap, knock-off heels of these job losses strutted the global recession. The founders of the Love ZA Buy ZA campaign claim that at least another 80 000 jobs have been lost in the South African clothing and textile industry over the past six years. Fresh figures from Statistics SA, however, suggest that the situation has begun to stabilise since 2011. This is hopeful news for our designer talents and home-grown brands, meaning that the South African consumer is stepping out dressed in local fashion and by doing this, creating jobs in an industry that has been near-devastated over the last decade.

Band of (creative) brothers

As they struggle to cope with a different kind of market, South Africa’s designers are being forced to do something that they’re actually very good at: reinventing themselves. Or to be more precise, reinventing the way they do business.

These days many fashion shows attract large sponsorships from industries hoping to associate their brands with style and luxury, such as the BMW and Audi.

At a grassroots level, there is a coming-together and networking through initiatives like SA Creatives (sacreativenetwork.co.za), a community of talents that brings together a wide range of skills – anything from graffiti artists to typography to advertising as an art form.

Design delivered to your door

Another avenue that is helping South Africa’s design talent promote its creations is the Internet. The surge in ‘arts and crafts’ as a secondary source of income as the result of the global recession has seen a boom in websites dedicated to showcasing and selling the work of these artists. Locally, one such site is HelloPretty.co.za.

“Throughout our travels, we realised that there’s one thing that’s universally appreciated: Great design,” say the site creators Sam, Scott and Adeline. We’re constantly amazed and inspired by the incredible things being created right here in South Africa, and we felt there needed to be some way for people to connect with it on a larger scale than their local market.”

Hello Pretty sets itself above the rest through the careful curatorship of the artists allowed to have a store on the platform. Everything sold on Hello Pretty is indie, unusual and beautifully crafted, and you can find anything from tote bags that have been illustrated by hand to oversized bowties.

Another such site is Africandy.com, which features more established South African designers, with a focus on lifestyle and home items like scatter cushions and accessories by our local fabric queen Skinny laMinx, the brand-child of illustrator Heather Moore.

One thing is certain: as global markets continue to totter, the South African fashion-lover is becoming more patriotic in her tastes, putting her money where her Tsonga ballet pumps are.