mercedes-benz fashion week cape town 2014*


Impressive displays of local ingenuity and homegrown renditions of international fashion, were the defining characteristics of this year's Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Cape Town, which look place last week from 24 - 26 July 2014. Despite the unexpected popularity of Japanese references in designers' Spring Summer 2014/ 2015 collections, the lack of constructive criticism and the absence of a comprehensive audience - a handful of local designers still managed to rise above the mediocrity - feats which have set new standards for future local fashion design and will hopefully entice more locals to buy local.    
Though it's called "fashion week" it only lasts three days, and by the end of day one, my brain was already overanalysing the extreme omnipresence of Asian fashion influences. Witnessing two key local fashion designers, namely Gavin Rajah and Stefania Morland, both coincidentally draw inspiration from Japan - albeit in completely different ways - was interesting. I know that orientalism is currently experiencing a fashion moment, but I felt the presentation of both collections bordered on being too costume-y. Although they did earn plenty of social media currency by trying to put on a theatrical show, unlike other designers who just thought sending models down a runway was enough. 
Moving from Asian aesthetics back to local turf; what would MBFWCT be without a plethora of African-inspired prints? As expected, Lalesso and Marianne Fassler offered their usual dose of afrocentric prints, while other designers focused on pastel colour palettes and feminine takes on sportswear. Even footwear felt slightly sporty with its racing stripes/ slide sandal swag - it also looks like the "ugly shoe trend" has found its way to SA shores. These shoes were paired with some of Spring Summer 2014/ 2015's must-have items like crop tops, shell tops, jumpsuits, shirt dresses and culottes. In terms of accessories, bold jewellery made from cord and rope have become local fashion staples, thanks to Pichulik and Belinda-Lee Ludek's extraordinary creations for Kat van Duinen and Michelle Ludek's collections respectively. 

Sportswear chic

African prints


Bold jewellery and slide sandals

Whether watching international fashion weeks via live streams and social media feeds, or whether attending a local fashion week in pure front row/ back row style - I'm always prepared for manic switches between delight and disappointment. Every fashion week has its hero designers and those "what-the-hell-was-that" collections, but this year especially, I felt the established South African fashion media didn't offer enough honest critiques of the collections presented. Perhaps it has something to do with the public's lack of interest in local fashion weeks - do people even want to read what credible fashion insiders have to say about local fashion brands? Or maybe the South African fashion industry is just too "friendly?" Everyone knows everyone, and it's all quite polite and lovely. It would be quite awkward to imagine the social/ professional repercussions for publishing a negative review about a local designer's work - especially if that designer is your friend or an "of the moment" local fashion star. Egos are like eggshells and nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings. But the benefit of constructively reviewing a collection could open a much needed dialogue about local fashion.
Unadulterated honesty and the politics of popularity could get you side-eyed at fashion socials, no matter how well-informed/ educated/ experienced/ constructive your opinion is. But if art, food, film, music and literature can be reviewed and criticised - why can't South African fashion entertain a chorus of opinion? Why do we have to wait for Gavin Rajah to copy/ not copy a design by Zuhair Murad, for people to assess the state of South African fashion? Creative work needs critical commentary to flourish. And in an industry made up of fluffy superlative talk and social prowess - how refreshing would it be to enjoy the honest criticism of an experienced editor or journalist? I believe in our local talent enough to know that through the experienced support of our tight-knit fashion community - we could help designers, media, buyers and organisers qualify the platform that is MCFWCT, by publishing positive, constructive feedback. Because let's be honest, there isn't much of that going around, and it's no one's fault. Our industry is young and we're learning as we go along, I'm just saying that the lessons could be learnt a whole lot quicker if we weren't so afraid to say the things everyone's thinking, but nobody's saying.
Speaking about critical feedback - given the social media typhoon that Gavin Rajah dress caused, one of the biggest topics to emerge from the MBFWCT, was the importance of "original" local design. I don't think there's anything wrong with looking at the work of international fashion brands like Celine, Prada and Givenchy - just make sure that if you're going to incorporate elements of their work into your own, do it your way. Challenge the aesthetic: add on to it, subtract from it, divide it - but please don't just multiply it. Especially for the obvious reason that fashion literate consumers and media will recognise it as a botched up "copy-and-paste" project, regardless of the fact that international designers steal from each other all the time. On the other side of the coin, it's a well known truth that fashion's 'culture of copying' helps feed designers' creativity. The issue of copying in fashion isn't as black and white as people think it is, and you need to understand the chasm-like grey area that exists in between "originality" and "imitation." So instead of Gavin Rajah attaching those reference images in his press release to prove that he didn't copy Zuhair Murad's dress, he should've just attached this video instead: 

But it's not just the designers and clothing under scrutiny. African Fashion International, the body responsible for organising MBFWCT, is also judged for its capabilities as the official organisers. I'm not going to rant about the list of issues I experienced at MBFWCT this year (I'd just be fuelling the stereotype that fashion people like to bitch), but I would like to two things to be noted:
1. A healthy ratio of media, buyers, students, public ticket holders, celebrities and fashion influencers, needs to be carefully considered and controlled in future by calculated seat allocation.   
2. The event might be given the illustrious title of, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Cape Town, but it's a very, very small window into what Cape Town is producing in terms of fashion. Consolidating Cape Town's fashion design scene into the city's one and only official fashion week, would give "Cape Town Fashion Week" an entirely new meaning. Imagine inviting key fashion influencers to curate an installation of work by emerging Cape Town-based designers who can't afford to showcase, but are contributing to the progression of the city's design economy through original work or through new and innovative production methods. Young designers are turning out to be the darlings of the local fashion design scene and their brands could also benefit from the MBFWCT platform as well. 

AKEDO by Eleni Labrou

The truth that emerging designers are fast becoming the best innovators in fashion, was reflected in collections by newcomers, Akedo and Blanc. The AFI Next Generation show was foretelling of SA's next batch of cult-cool fashion designers. Nicholas Coutts's collection was probably the most anticipated because of his victory as the the Elle Rising Star Designer 2013, but Akedo and Blanc managed to extract gasps of, "Oooh I want that!" from the audience, as their collections came down the runway. It was obvious they were inspired by international trends and I really appreciated the modernity of their designs. Akedo's monochrome palette and original prints oozed coolness and Blanc's thought provoking unisex collection earned her extra points for her social commentary through fashion. It was a refreshing break from the banal safety of pretty dresses and tribal prints. 
BLANC by Alexandra Blanc

Loin Cloth & Ashes by Anisa Mpungwe

From pleasantly refreshing collections by Akedo and Blanc, to a full on shock-inducing spectacle of Amish African girls - Anisa Mpungwe's label, Loin Cloth & Ashes, was a far cry from what I expected to see from this popular local fashion designer. In fact, I don't think anyone in the audience expected the sack-like silhouettes and print cocktails of child-like polkadots, candy stripes and African-inspired patterns. The fact that she almost completely diverged from her tried-and-trusted equation of edgy styling and print excess - made this an outstanding collection to watch. It's a marvellous example of how designers shouldn't be afraid to challenge their own design signature, but rather inculcate a fearless reputation for exploring their aesthetic through their product, and on their own terms. I commend Anisa for taking a chance and pushing her creative limits.  
But what would MBFWCT be without a true display of unapologetic fashion excess and glamour? KLuK CGDT concluded MBFWCT with a spectacular fashion exhibition and the launch of their new three story, collaborative retail space in Bree street, Cape Town. The fashion people were utterly bedazzled, the models were styled to the nines and I really enjoyed the versatility of some of the pieces. I've got my eye on this sequinned jacket. It's the perfect statement piece to dress up or down, and I can't wait to mix it with this shirtdress by Selfi. The duo behind the KLuK CGDT brand, Malcom Kluk and Christiaan Gabriël Du Toit, produce six collections a year and continue to reign as South Africa's ultimate fashion house, skilfully creating bridal, couture and ready-to-wear collections. 
Seeing these local fashion brands continue to produce and progress only strengthens my belief in local fashion. And although MBFWCT was filled with unforgettable fashion moments as well as creative disappointments, I do understand that it's no easy task to manage people's expectations of what the "fashion week experience" should be and what local designers should be designing. Nevertheless, I hope we'll all learn from the feedback, reviews and comments, to come back with thicker skins and open minds every year. 
The reality is that it's not just up to AFI, the designers, buyers and media to build our local fashion industry into the empire it deserves to be, it's also up to consumers to support the local fashion economy. By giving up all those ZARs spent in Zara, Topshop and Cotton On, so they can pay some local boutiques and online stores a visit, South African designers will be afforded the opportunity to build real fashion brands. Exclusively depending on the hard work fashion industry professionals do, to support and promote local fashion isn't enough. The bottom line is that we have to spend more than just our time talking about how talented our local fashion designers are.

KLûK CGDT by Malcom Kluk and Christiaan Gabriël Du Toit