South African fashion is a multi-billion rand industry and it is very underrated…

by Cynthia Baloyi

How long is it going to take for us to find the magic that Paris has, formalize it and become one of the regional hubs?

Sundays are the laziest days of the week, after a late lunch with my partner in our sweat suits, we decided to go on a mini shopping spree. And that landed us in one of the most premium stores in the fashion industry. With the store layout, visual merchandising and my experience, I expected a “Hi Ma’am, how are you, how can I be of your assistance?” kind of welcome. But instead, there was 2 very beautiful – I can’t deny, young ladies, heavily made up, with a big stinky attitude. Our presence seemed to have disturbed their catch up on last night’s club session. A mere “Hi” could have been nice, but it was clear that the bubble gum in their mouths was more important. I felt as though I was standing right in front of South African Idols judges but the difference was – in silence, their stares were piercing through my soul. Their body language clearly communicated “You can’t afford anything in here”. We left the store without buying anything, not because we couldn’t afford, but simply because of discomfort. This is South African everyday story, these are supposed to be the brand ambassadors and because of the general notion about the fashion business, they do not take their roles seriously.
“My worst nightmare would begin when I am around friends or relatives and they ask me where to work”

My worst nightmare would begin when I am around friends or relatives and they ask me where work

I have been working in fashion since 2010, I have a great understanding of long trading hours, the worst – longer hours during festive seasons and rude customers asking if you know who they are when they can’t get a refund on an item they have worn and washed 3 times already. At the beginning of my fashion career, I was the product knowledge champion. That meant I should know and train the team about the benefits and features of all the garment in the store. Later on, I became the Product Manager for one of the well-known international brands, meaning I was responsible for the kind of product that is sent to my store, how I present it to the customer and attending the glamorous seasonal launches with the bloggers. All these sounds fancy, I was grateful when I was in that space. The thing that really bothers me though, is that people are very dismissive of fashion. My worst nightmare would begin when I am around friends or relatives and they ask me where I worked. Fashion, more especially retail, is so much looked down at. When I started, people used to ask me what I planned to do with my life, or better yet, ask if that is even a real job. I used to hide from people I know when they visited the store because I felt like I failed in life. Even though I had a fair income.

Photo: Cynthia Baloyi

Do we even have the South African Fashion council? Because if the answer is yes, they are not doing a good job in nurturing the growth of the industry. A lot of people have a misconception about fashion and a lot of people are stereotyped about fashion. Parents don’t encourage their children to move into that direction because it is perceived as the industry that is not supportive of career. There is little awareness and education around it. When people look at fashion from the outside, they think it’s about being a model or a fashion designer. But there is a whole array, many many roles. We need to move away from the perception of thinking that a brand is about one man creating the whole collection, there is planning, buying, fashion journalism, and the list is endless. There is no way when I was in school I could have even thought this is a career option. But now when I look back from where I started and where I am, in an office full of creative people, make me feel like I am shooting a South African version of The Devil wears Prada.

We are way behind because we still think fashion business is about buying a couple of item from China mall, model them on Instagram and sell them at 5 times the amount you bought them for, with the most annoying caption “DM for prices”. We need an understanding of the entire value chain – skilled fashion designers, seamstresses, planners, opening our own factories and the creation of multiple platforms to allow investors to buy into the industry. We need the government to intervene and assist in creating a positive perception. Most people rather spend a fortune on a fake international brand to look “expensive” than buy an affordable bespoke outfit from a local fashion designer because we do not believe in our brands, we do not believe that our story can sell and therefore, we struggle to put a value on our artwork. International exclusive brands create each and every garment with a story behind it, they hire and train sales assistants/ brand representative that is able to translate the story to the customer and that’s how brand loyalty is created. As much as we embrace diversity, we need to create a sense of identity and own it. In that way, we will confidently be able to translate it to the world. We now have European designers telling a better story using the African prints, which is supposed to be our own.

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South African born-fashion designers, David Tlale and Rich Mnisi has been unapologetic about their creations and demolished the boundaries. Their progressive thinking and desire to change the status quo has inspired others. But that is just a drop in the ocean. Very few of South African A-listers hire the stylists and as a certified Image Consultant, the field is very dry. To be considered successful as a fashion designer, you need to have London, Paris and New York fashion week on your profile but when are we proudly going to have South African Fashion week? And I am not talking about Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Where the “who is who” gathers, draped in South African brands and truly showcasing what we can offer to the world of fashion. Or are we still at the stage where we are asking for acceptance because we do not know our true value?

This may take time, but if there is one thing that is constant, it is change and fashion has gone through an innumerable change. If we do not lay the solid foundation today, we might find ourselves floating with no direction. A perfect example is how the online shopping experience has become more efficient, we wouldn’t need to deal with a rude and judgmental customer assistant but rather buy anything in the comfort of my own home. And that contributes to a higher rate of unemployment.

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