Wear local fashion, say South African designers

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on March 27 2016.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Global fashion retailers descending on local malls coupled with cheap Chinese clothing imports have jolted South African fashion designers to work harder at pushing their products.

To this end, the Wear South African campaign, an initiative of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu), was launched to promote local fashion and secure factory worker jobs.

Wear SA is now running in its third year and will next week partner with the Cape Town International Jazz Festival to platform three local designers.

The designers will showcase their work at the Fashion and all that Jazz gala dinner next week on Thursday night, a preview of the festival where some of its artists will be performing on stage too.

Sactwu’s link with the jazz community means that local fashion designers reach new clients and ultimately secure jobs.

Magents menswear label designers Didier de Villiers and Theithei Letlabika are preparing their looks for next week.


CREATIVE COMBO: Magents designers Didier de Villiers (left) and Theithei Letlabika are showing their latest creations at the Fashion and all that Jazz gala dinner next week. The event is part of the annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

De Villiers says they have looked at different business models in growing their brand.

“A lot of factories focus on a Chinese model.

Letlabika adds: “The Chinese want volume. It’s quantity and not quality. Chain stores push that too. It’s about producing a lot of goods for cheap.”

De Villiers says the Turkish model, on the other hand, “focuses on their own brands and exports that”.

“When you build a brand you can instill higher skills locally. South Africa is so small. We should focus on the niche and not the mass,” he says.

De Villiers says this model will set apart local designers from the endless, noisy rails of cheap imports.

Magents was started in the 1990s in Johannesburg and has already exported their goods to Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States.

Its store in Canal Walk mall opened a few months and plans are underway to open stores in other parts of the country this year.

While building their brand, De Villiers has also been growing other local businesses as they source fabrics from “only African-owned factories”.

“It took us a few years to develop that because it’s a bit more difficult in Africa,” says De Villiers.

“We don’t want to touch anything from Asia. Not that Asia is bad, but we want to stick to Africa. That is very difficult, but the people come first.

“We work with people who have families. We want them to know that what they are creating is something bigger than just putting a stitch into a piece of cloth.”

De Villiers says it also makes sense for them to work locally as logistics get in the way.

“It’s easier to manufacture locally because of the traveling and back and forth (when working offshore). It makes it easier than shipping back samples that are not right,” he says.

The challenge about working with local fabric manufacturers and assembly line businesses are their lack skills compared to foreign counterparts, says De Villiers.

“Our gripe with local factories is skills and machinery. And also their unwillingness to develop new stuff,” says De Villiers.

“A lot of factories are not willing to spend on equipment to make certain kind of washes (treating fabric for various effects). They just want normal fabric to work with. Then you land up with a touristy T-shirt.”

Letlabika says their label is intent on being “consistent”.

“We want to build with customers that want quality and also guys who are conscious of where the stuff is made,” he says.

Young designer Bokang Lehabe, based in Athlone and originally from rural North West province, says he too prefers to work with local fabrics and manufacturers.


THINKING LOCAL: Young fashion designer Bokang Lehabe uses only local fabrics to produce his garments. He will also show his designs at the Fashion and all that Jazz gala dinner next week. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

The 25-year-old runs his women’s wear label Bookha Creations where the “people behind everything we do are local”.

“We are not getting all the parts from China and then putting it together here and saying it’s local,” says Lehabe.

“The fabrics we print are made in Cape Town. The products are locally manufactured.

“We need to revive the clothing industry in South Africa. We can’t do that if all we do is import.”

Lehabe says the challenge for local designers though is that we “don’t have much fabric mills here so it is expensive to source local fabrics”.

“But when you do, you get good products out of it. It is convenient to go to Asia to source fabrics, but it does not mean the quality will be better,” he says.

Lehabe says local designers are now “popping up everywhere” making supporting local fashion more accessible.

Lehabe is excited about showing at the Fashion and all that Jazz gala dinner.

“I have had only private shows. Some of the major retailers would send their people to see the direction we are going,” he says.

“I am in a good position now to be in fashion weeks. I needed it to make business sense. It’s pointless spending a lot of money on fashion week just for pretty pictures,” says Lehabe.

“It’s pointless to be in every magazine if you are not going to be able to survive in the long run. I’ve seen people come and go in fashion. I want to make this a business.”

Lehabe adds: “Showing at the jazz festival is an amazing platform. It will open a market for us and we will meet people who have not heard of us.”



Wear South African (Wear SA) is a movement designed to encourage every South African to support buying local.

It is intended to encourage designers and retailers to think about where they will source their materials from in designing and making garments that can be sold in South Africa and worn anywhere.

This campaign is committed to making South Africa an economic clothing and designer powerhouse once again and asks that consumers consciously think about the products they buy – whether it is a fashion item or not.

Source: Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union


The Fashion and all that Jazz gala dinner is part of annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival running next weekend in the city.

This festival is referred to as ‘Africa’s Grandest Gathering’ and runs at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

The event has multiple stages with at least 40 artists performing over two nights. Up to 37, 000 music lovers attend the event. For more info log on to http://www.capetownjazzfest.com

Source: espAfrika, organisers of the festival


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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