Successful African designers break into international fashion scene (dpa German Press Agency)

African designers are taking the international fashion scene by storm. Setting up successful companies, designers like South Africa’s David Tlale are merging Western and African influences in innovative ways that are drawing applause in Paris and New York.
Johannesburg (dpa) – When David Tlale was growing up as the son of a domestic worker single mother in apartheid-era South Africa, the world of haute couture seemed very far away. But his vocation started expressing itself at an early age.
“I was impressed by a technician uncle who wore a three-piece suit on a daily basis,” the 40-year-old recalls in his spacious, white-painted studio in Johannesburg’s trendy Maboneng neighbourhood.
Merging Western and African influences, Tlale is now regarded as one of the continent’s top fashion designers – on par with Nigerian Duro Olowu, who has dressed Michelle Obama, or Ghanaian Ozwald Boateng, who has won accolades including the Order of the British Empire.
Tlale’s company, which employs 25 people, has two boutiques in classy neighbourhoods of Johannesburg and Cape Town, and supplies to two other boutiques in South Africa.
While the country’s textile, clothing and footwear industry has receded due to cheap Asian imports, it still employs nearly 100,000 people and turns over about 40 billion rand (3 billion dollars) annually, according to the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU).
“When I was about 10 years old, I told my mother I wanted to pick my own clothes – colourful ones, and some quite loud shoes. I later started making clothes for my sister’s Barbie dolls,” Tlale says.
The young man from Vosloorus south of Johannesburg first studied auditing, but soon switched to fashion design. More than a decade later, he has showcased his dramatic, unconventional designs in New York and Paris.
“The global fashion world is hungry, waiting for something new. And I strongly feel it will come from Africa,” the designer says from his studio, where clothes racks are filled with bold purple evening gowns and ochre-coloured shirts made of chantilly lace.
Packed audiences at the recent Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and South African Fashion Week in Johannesburg bore witness to the buoyancy of the country’s fashion scene.
Designs ranged from flowery gowns, denim and animal prints to soberly tailored black coats and Star Wars-inspired garments.
“Cities including Lagos, Accra, Dar es Salaam, Harare and Nairobi all stage pan-African or regional fashion weeks,” says Marica Quarsingh from African Fashion International, the platform staging the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.
During the apartheid era, when South African blacks were consumed by the fight for equal rights, fashion was a luxury. Tlale recalls that practically all designers were white.
After apartheid collapsed in 1994 and the floodgates opened to black creativity, designers inspired by the black consciousness movement dressed people in African-inspired gala outfits, the designer says.
“For years, South Africa was marketed with Ndebele beads and animal prints,” he says, adding that now the time has come to surpass that ethnic phase and to “go global.”
Grey and beige dresses donned by mannequins at Tlale’s studio look typically European – until you spot the subtle colourful lining at the bottom of the skirt.
A ball gown in black mesh is brightened by a waist-trimmer in black-and-white cow hide. The African influences may also be “in how I embrace colour, silhouettes, and in the craftsmanship.”
Another designer, Marianne Fassler, says she draws her inspiration from the modern, bustling city of Johannesburg – its “streets, music, sky, art” – while Khosi Nkosi’s wide-brimmed, European-looking hats stem from his Sotho culture.
Innovative design does not necessarily translate to economic success, however.
Textile and clothing industries in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritius and Swaziland have taken a beating from cheap Asian imports over the past decade, according to Etienne Vlok, a researcher with SACTWU.
Chinese textile imports to south-east Africa alone increased by 62 per cent to 2.3 billion dollars between 2007 and 2011, according to the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
No statistics are available on all of sub-Saharan Africa’s textile and clothes production or employment, but SACTWU says hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost.
Trade agreements with the United States and European Union have increased exports.
But the US still only gets about 1 per cent of its apparel imports – worth about 1 billion dollars – from sub-Saharan Africa, while the EU takes less than 1 per cent of its textile imports – about 900 million dollars – from the region, according to official figures.
South Africa exports less than 5 per cent of its clothing and textile production.
“There is much more space for the fashion industry to create jobs,” Vlok says – and designers like Tlale are optimistic about their economic potential on the domestic and international market.
“Women everywhere want to look good” and they don’t care which culture the most attractive garments are inspired by, the designer says before showing a white shirt combined with a colourful African-patterned skirt.

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