Writing Art History Since 2002

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According to the press release, this was the first year that the country’s premiere fashion showcase, SA Fashion Week, had (limited) tickets available for purchase by the public. For the past seven years it’s just been open to industry and media types; this year normal people were allowed to be there too.

Now, a friend of mine was sitting having lunch across from the Sandton Convention Centre, where this year’s event was held, and says he witnessed something indicative of the problem. He saw two fly black girls being dropped off by their father for a midday show — in a bakkie. Mortified to be seen like that, there, they hurried from the vehicle. When their father hooted and called them back to discuss something, they acted like they didn’t know him. Dad who?

I guess it’s what we love and hate about glamour. Successful fashion shows are about the theatre of the other you and the whiff of the unattainable — the steep price tags on the garments, the impossibly skinny models, the aspiration of being in, of being it. But, did SA Fashion Week help fertilise this culture, or has it all just become a bit of a wank?

Sure, the owners of the event wanted this to be the year of “the business of fashion”. It’s industry-building time, with the Department of Arts and Culture as well as the Department of Trade and Industry putting their money on the table for the first time. It was also decided to hold the shows a month earlier, so that retailers and magazines had time to get summer stock in place. Good. But there’s more to the exercise, and everyone secretly knows it. SA Fashion Week is, by its nature in an emerging democracy, able to spin the zeitgeist and add glitter to the face of the nation.

When SA Fashion Week started it was an audacious idea in a tent in the middle of a newly built Sandton Square. Back then, we were still in the grip of 1980s glamour couture — Julian, Marc and Michael, Errol Arendz, The Boys — with only the odd Fassler piece actually stopping to draw from a rich and scruffy local cultural heritage. That first year, it was lots of Egoli stars and beauty queens, Edith Venter and the Datin — a respectable, moneyed bling bling. Then came a new school of local designers. They emerged with kwaito and democracy: Abigail Betz, Black Coffee, Stoned Cherrie, David West, Row-G. These designers were naturally controversial and technically proficient, not to mention internationable (sic) and fashionable. The media also finally delivered, being suitably outraged, in the process helping SA Fashion Week ride the wave the event needed to bring it up to date with its international contemporaries.

Of course, by 2004, another new school has emerged. It includes Strangelove (not on show this year), Darkie by Themba Mngonezulu, Palesa Mokubung, Ella Buta and Frances Andrew. Now it’s the 2010 World Cup and Jo’burg City and the African Union and the big league. It’s face of the nation time. By and large, it is a streety generation of designers, excited by referencing popular culture and the symbols of our identity in both the big city and the small town. It is a generation that studied fashion, knows the rules and how to break them.

At this year’s SA Fashion Week, Palesa showcased some exciting stuff, while Darkie did what Darkie does best, bringing ekasi to the fashionistas. However, Jacques van der Watt’s Black Coffee show was the hot ticket. The pairing of Black Coffee with Clive was a good choice for the finale. Both houses have always been able to stitch elements of street and boere chic into their garments, and are the right kind of establishment. Designer Clive Rundle put on a beautiful show, with pop imagery like soccer shoe prints winking from beneath the gorgeously couturish frocks and takkies set on high heels and the like.

Black Coffee, too, offered a very carefully considered and beautiful range. Working around the decade of democracy theme, we saw hints of all the notable stages of Black Coffee’s work to date. There was the earthy futurist unisex thing, there was a touch of rigid Victoriana power dressing, the referencing of 1940s and 1950s styles, we got country chic, 1980s pleats and koekerige boere glam. And this time the range was cut almost entirely from natural fabrics, offering some clever fusions of East and West, craft and high style.

Van der Watt says he drew inspiration from a week spent at a Buddhist retreat in the Karoo. He also designed much of his own fabric, which included drawings of natural flowers and silhouettes of aloes along with Zen circles, sparsely spread across the fabric. The colours were earthy and ancient, with the shocking orange of a Karoo sunset added to the mix.

Born in the Eastern Cape, van der Watt tapped into the traditional style of the region. He worked with a craft project to utilise the multi-layered buttons found on traditional Xhosa skirts, and used these on the garments as well as on the accessories. He designed a button print fabric, using it selectively throughout the range, often disguising it within pleating. The final 11 outfits each had a beauty queen sash added, with words embroidered on to celebrate the country’s democracy — freedom, kinship, renaissance, etcetera. These were party frocks for a free country, one that is comfortable engaging with its history.

My problem with the show was not in the garments, but in the showing. Audiences missed much of this detail as it was not framed and highlighted. In the past Black Coffee has shown with live performance amid piles of sticks, or with models behind hedgerows sipping coffee. One year, the models were even presented as cardboard cut-outs. Previously, the conceptual elements of Black Coffee’s work were carefully foregrounded in the staging of their shows.

Black Coffee’s problems were indicative of a larger one. SA Fashion Week relies heavily on sponsors. Has L’Oréal Paris never heard that less is more? They opened the technically dubious final show in a manner that had international critics gaping, with a Latin-inspired dance number featuring a gaggle of babes in white leotards and a male dancer in an unbuttoned transparent shirt. He’d hold a babe in the air, thunder would rumble, he’d put her down again. It was like a bad 1980s car launch.

And it got worse. The sponsors had desperately wanted Charlize Theron to appear before the show in her Oscar frock. That would’ve been okay. But she couldn’t make it, so instead we got Michelle McLean in a spotlight, wearing the Ralph Lauren gown Charlize wore to one of the Oscar pre-parties. McLean’s entrance was followed by a lengthy L’Oréal advert. Only then did we get to sip the Black Coffee. Um, guys?

Negotiating the path of sponsors’ needs is difficult, but at the same time, we’re in the middle of a revolution here. The street has risen up to meet the catwalk; designers like Black Coffee are referencing a truly local aesthetic. We’re successfully forging our own design identity. Newtown has been rebuilt. Someone’s got to ask the question: What are we still doing hanging out in Sandton where the kids are too ashamed to be seen arriving on the back of a bakkie? Charl Blignaut is a writer and TV producer, currently working on local TV drama. He is the author of a monograph on artist Wayne Barker .


Summer 2004 Black Coffee collection, by Jacques van der Watt. Photos: Ivan Naude

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