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Maverick Life: South African Menswear Week, nine seasons later: What have we learnt?

In 2015, when South African Menswear Week kicked off, it offered new hope to an industry that often struggles to balance creative aspiration with business success. As the platform presented its ninth season last Saturday, we caught up with co-founder Simon Deiner, as well as three designers who’ve shown on the platform.

2015, the first week of February: this was the week that marked the launch of South African Menswear Week, a first not only for South Africa but also for the continent. Over three days, fashion enthusiasts, the press and the 2015 version of the influencer gathered in a parking-lot-turned-catwalk at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. It was hot and the venue, a cordoned-off section of a middle floor at the Breakwater parking garage, didn’t help. The would-be VIP area ended up as general access; the bar service and the catering were in chaos.

If I have fifty grand to spend, I'm going to put it into a show before I hire silver furniture and give you canapes that are probably some fish variety that none of you really want to eat anyway,” says Simon Deiner, co-founder of SA Menswear Week. As it happened, money was rather spent on hosting the designers and giving them a platform to show their collection… free of charge; this is unusual practice in an industry where fashion weeks’ organisers often charge designers to show. At the first season of SA Menswear, attendees were introduced to a fresh crop of South African designers, who have since gained varying levels of success and name recognition. There was Rich Mnisi, who just the previous year had been part of African Fashion International (AFI)’s Fastrack programme, and been named AFI Young Designer of the Year; Lukhanyo Mdingi, who had been a finalist in the ELLE Rising Star competition as a student in 2013, and launched his eponymous label at the first SAMW; Chu Suwannapha, who had been known among fashion industry insiders as a stylist, fashion editor and fashion director in the print magazine industry, and who launched his label, Chulaap, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. It was soon followed by critical acclaim in the media. All in all, 25 designers showcased. Some established, some new, some forgettable. [caption id="attachment_234972" align="alignleft" width="3813"] Simon Deiner/ SDR photo; SA Menswear Fashion Week; Chulaap by Chu Suwannapah[/caption] The time SAMW started was such an instrumental time in menswear globally. Also, just that focus on Africa. I think it really did kick-start the whole press and marketing aspect of our label,” says Mdingi. The following year would see him return to SAMW with a friend, fellow designer and winner of the 2013 ELLE Rising Star competition, Nicholas Coutts, to present a collaborative range they had recently launched at Pitti Uomo, the highly-regarded menswear trade show in Milan. We were working on so many fashion weeks and we just wanted to do and try something our way,” says SAMW founder, Simon. Over the past decade, his company SDR has not only been responsible for capturing the catwalk images for London Fashion Week but also at fashion weeks throughout the continent. An experience which he says “has earned me the strange claim to fame of having attended more fashion shows than anyone else in Africa”.

Through SDR’s sister company, Group of Creatives, which he heads up with fashion show producer Jen Deiner, they have produced numerous shows locally as well as across the continent. And it is in part that experience and exposure to creative talent that led them to the creation of South African Menswear Week. Says Simon:

I came back to South Africa after working on London Fashion Week and I was like… I think we are good when it comes to menswear; I’m not saying we can’t export womenswear, but menswear, I think we could be properly competitive. And then, as we worked in Lagos, Tanzania, and across Africa, menswear [collections] were just so good that eventually we just decided to do it.”

Fast forward to 2019. SAMW has presented nine seasons in total, five Autumn/Winter shows and four Spring/Summer shows. The process hasn’t been without its challenges.

It’s been tough, sponsorship is non-existent and a few sponsors that always are key have been burnt climbing into fashion week space. So, it’s very difficult to reassure them that we were not going to over-promise and under-deliver, but for the large part, we work 12 months a year to pay for two menswear weeks. What’s great is that 80 percent of the people that are doing it are passionate about [it]. We have mostly volunteers. No one’s asking for money. They just come because they all share this vision.”

This time it was quite different from the first show though. Instead of being spread over a few days, SA Menswear started at 10:30 am on the Saturday with the last show at 8 pm. There are a few reasons for this switch, a major one being an unforeseen health issue: Jen Deiner, Simon’s co-founding partner and head of the production, needed to undergo serious medical treatment that same week. Although there had been talks about changing the format of the show, collections were presented one after the other with small breaks in-between as it had been done in the past. For those interested in getting a closer look at the clothes, access to backstage was opened to all attendees.

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It is a tricky time for fashion weeks in general, of which South Africa has three: South African Fashion Week, founded by Lucilla Booyzen in 1997; AFI’s Fashion Week, founded by Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe in 2007, both of which show menswear and womenswear, with a stronger focus on the latter; and then, there is, of course, the Deiners’ South Africa Menswear Week (SAMW). Aside from the recurring question about the necessity of having several fashion weeks, for a market as small as South Africa, some designers challenge whether the fashion week model truly works in our country; people, in general, remain unaware of local labels, and there are less than a handful of retail buyers focused on South African design. Even though some designers get to show their ranges, much of what is seen on the ramp will never get produced, often due to a too small demand and a lack of financial and technical resources.

Local designer Nicholas Coutts shares these exact concerns. He presented his new range at SAMW, inspired by the Cape flora. He described the collection as an optimistic and androgynous range, with bright colours. Although the collection received a warm reaction, he is less optimistic about its prospects to eventually go into production.

I love having a show and promoting my work. It gets a lot of attention on the brand, and then there’s also images one can use for marketing. However, it’s also frustrating because the South African market is not buying into high-end items. There’s also hardly any buyers at the shows besides Woolworths and Superbalist.”

[caption id="attachment_234977" align="alignleft" width="2333"] Simon Deiner/ SDR photo; SA Menswear Fashion Week; Nicholas Coutts[/caption]

To support himself and to continue to grow his brand, Nicholas has been working on the side as a stylist for TV commercials. Will he continue to show after this season?

I don’t know, I’m in limbo at the moment. It’s frustrating. I think I need to get my clothes on celebrities, like a Riky Rick or a Cassper Nyovest. I think Simon needs to invite more celebrities. I also feel like every year SAMW keeps getting smaller. I don’t know.”

This year’s line-up included 20 designers; however, only 16 showed in the end due to customs issues – some regulars, like ALC Menswear, Nao Serati, 2Bop & British-Nigerian designer, Tokyo James, and some who were newcomers. Others, like Rich Mnisi, have not shown on the SAMW platform for the last few seasons, while Chu Suwannapha, who consistently presents his collection at SAMW, was also absent this season.

[caption id="attachment_234974" align="alignleft" width="4000"] Simon Deiner/ SDR photo; SA Menswear Fashion Week; Designer Rich Mnisi[/caption]

Chu’s just a timing issue at the moment,” explains Simon. Indeed, Suwannapha had been invited to show in Barcelona earlier in the same week; he confirmed that he will be doing a lot of projects with SAMW over the next few months.

The reason I am here today, the reason I am able to do all these shows internationally, is SA Menswear Week. Simon and Jen have been incredibly supportive, even beyond menswear week. Even when I have business-related questions, I go to them and they are always there with open arms. I will always work with SA Menswear Week, I will always be loyal to them.”

[caption id="attachment_234973" align="alignleft" width="4000"] Simon Deiner/ SDR photo; SA Menswear Fashion Week; Designers Nicholas Coutts and Lukhanyo Mdingi[/caption] Lukhanyo Mdingi, who had a presentation at NYFW on 6 February, has not shown since 2016. Lukhanyo will be back in June/July [for the Spring/Summer collections], he’s doing it properly and slowly,” says Simon. But Mdingi disagrees: “Speaking from my truth, it was a complete waste of time actually. I noticed towards the end who I was showcasing to, and none of the [people in the audience] were my customer. It was really people that were social media-driven; that’s cool, to each their own, but I wasn’t getting any leverage from that except for an Instagram post and that’s absolutely just not enough. I definitely know that I will not be showcasing at any South African Fashion Week, and that’s purely based on the fact that my market is not there, and the people that are sitting in the front row are not the ones buying my clothes.”

The question of social media and its relative power is something that Suwannapha also ponders on.

Lots of South African designers fall into the social media trap. I think it is important to understand your brand. What is your brand? It’s not about you, it’s about your brand. In the real world, it’s about your product.”

The way he sees it, designers need to “get a better understanding of the South African economy as well as the global economy, and find ways to make it work for themselves”. With no website and no business card, he runs his business mainly off Instagram: “People DM-me and I export all around the world.”

Irrespective of fashion weeks, all agree on the importance of a solid business foundation:

I began to realise that this is so much more than just creating a collection for Fashion Week. It’s actually running something that is solid, something that is steady and something that is sustainable,” says Mdingi. In trying to understand his customer and his business better, he is also focusing beyond South Africa’s borders and catwalks: “I think it’s up to each fashion label to find their rhythm and see what’s best for them. If there was a market for our pieces, it would totally make business sense to be on the platform. But with my experience, and from what I’ve learned, it’s not feasible. It’s not a smart thing to do, because I’ve done it before. And in hindsight, even though I’m not doing fashion weeks, I still see them and it’s still the same rotation of the same people or the same kind of people; and every single time I see that, I get reminded that I actually made the best decision for my business and that is actually the most important thing to me.”

In the constantly evolving business of fashion, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all solution. South Africa is a country that has seen fashion labels capture the imagination of the nation, only to suddenly disappear from a popular conversation. Remember Stoned Cherrie? Sun Goddess?

Yet, there are also labels that have stood the test of time, on and off the fashion week schedule. Even as Suwannapha and Mdingi follow the path each think is best for their brands, as Deiner follows the path that he thinks is best for the industry, there is no panacea for an industry’s ills. Each can only decide what best suits their personal mission. Even among the different fashion weeks, there is no consensus on the best way to build a sustainable future for South Africa’s designers.

I’m not saying other fashion weeks don’t have challenges. Lucilla’s done it for so long, I really want to know what she’s gone through. There were years when I could see she was scraping through and making it happen. And I respect that. I don’t like the way she does business and I’ll I say that openly. But we do the best we can. That’s all it is. And it’s about trying not to lose sight of that vision,” says Deiner. ML

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