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Unpicking the South African Fashion Industry



The objective of this presentation is to stimulate critical debate and interaction with a captive audience.  It is a bird's eye view of South Africa's fashion industry, tracking some important historical contexts and sharing some insights into the current issues it faces. My aim is to sketch out the links between various areas and nodes along the fashion value chain, and survey the status of these "seams":  some requiring strengthening, some needing realignment, and others holding together well enough to allow for free movement and growth.

My research is designed to provide evidence-based viewpoints that can inform policy development for the larger clothing and textile industry sector. Grafted upon this is the networking and dissemination platform I have developed through The ReDress Consultancy-South Africa, which supports advocacy for sustainable growth in this area.  My critique of this vital economic industry is not aimed at any single person or institution.  The developmental issues I address arise from diligent, meticulous scrutiny and analysis of the industry, and the questions I ask may provoke some intense reactions, but I voice these matters because no one else within the industry seems to be asking them in the public sphere.

This approach makes me somewhat vulnerable, in the sense that as a business-orientated entity seeking clients, I need to nurture many of the individuals, organisations and companies that I interview and evaluate, sometimes negatively – but in the longer run, my intention is to contribute to the betterment of the industry as a whole. I can only trust that key stakeholders and roleplayers in this arena recognise the value of the work for the growth of the sector, and indeed, for the livelihoods of our fellow-citizens.

Through the vision and determination of Lucilla Booyzen and the launch of SA Fashion Week in 1997, our national fashion industry became visible in the local and global apparel value-chain.  Over the last two years, our fashion landscape has seen remarkable growth, burgeoning media coverage and dynamic changes.  A significant development occurred late in 2006, when the fashion promotion company Leisureworx was bought out by Precious and Patrice Motsepe, who created a magnified force in the sector through the establishment of a new company called Africa Fashion International (AFI).    

I think the time has come for the industry to open itself to unbiased analysis and monitoring, so that it can collectively address specific challenges to growth, and devise mechanisms to advance the business end of South African fashion.  Until now, this sector has been inward-looking, conducting and reporting on in-house assessments.  In industry development, it is seen as imperative that to achieve sustainable growth that external, independent monitoring and evaluation be deployed.  Gate-keeping and resistance to such observations only thwart progress.

By encouraging participatory investigation of systems and processes, sharing the knowledge thereby gained, and strengthening advocacy efforts to lobby decision-makers, the industry can make a life-saving contribution to development of relevant policy. To achieve this, every single person who has a role in South Africa's fashion industry needs to join in the debate. Through their voices, policy formation and enhancement can be done holistically.  To this end, I offer The ReDress Consultancy-SA Blog as a forum for everyone to convey their ideas, concerns and lessons.   

The Global and Local Apparel Value-Chain

It is estimated that the global textile and clothing industry will be in the region of US$ 805 Billion by the year 2015.

Asian-Export-RiseWhilst there are statistical indications that China is losing export growth to other Asian countries, recent figures still project incredible growth. 

Between January and April 2007, the export value of textiles and garments grew by 15.08%, in comparison to the same period in 2006.

Apparel exports for this period in 2007 showed a growth of 11.48%, equating to 17.23 billion US$. 

South African fashion is an industry in and of itself, but it is also part of a wider industry that makes up the apparel value-chain.  It is not immune to local and global influences. The following two diagrams show the co-dependent links between and the intra-active influence of the dominant players in each of the two value-chains. 

Within the wider South African apparel value-chain (Diagram 1) large retail chain stores wield the most influence, making up 70% of the South African apparel market. Their leverage and procurement strategies form the centre of many debates – and much criticism – about their approach to supporting local design.  Retail owners counter this by emphasising their willingness to support local designers, but claim that they find it very difficult to do so due to the designers' lack of business skills. 



  Diagram One  © R. Palmi

This topic is the core of a perennial debate within the fashion industry, but it is crucial that we move past identifying inadequacies, and start to articulate the sources of the problem: for instance, what responsibility is borne by fashion colleges in terms of incorporating marketing and production methods into their design curricula? Should individual designers ensure that they acquire these skills independently?  Should we be looking at a system of apprenticeship in order to "grow our own timber" and build strong local capacity in this sector and is the designer community responsible as hinted by the retailers?

As retailers begin to consolidate their supplier base, the relationship between suppliers and retailers will undergo major changes, presenting both challenges and opportunities to fashion designers. Suppliers that can restructure their production to meet fast, flexible turn-around and deliver quality products will remain in business and pull ahead.  Those who cannot, run the risk of having to cut jobs and close factories.

I see Cut-Make-and-Trim (CMT) operations becoming increasingly reliant on fashion designers for business.  This is an opportunity for the fashion industry to consolidate itself and exert pressure on these CMTs to meet the level of expertise, quality and flexibility (especially for short production runs) required by designers – if this can be achieved, everybody wins.

The consumer plays a central role in the fashion value-chain, creating (or mostly following) the voracious pace of fast-fashion (like fast-food) through mass demand for innovation and re-direction in apparel designs.  Other important players are the media, fashion promoters (notably through events such as the Fashion Weeks) and the linkages between designers and their suppliers – these dynamics and interactions mobilise the industry up-stream and down-stream of this value chain.



Diagram 2   © R Palmi

Other players exerting influence in this sector, both negatively and positively, are:

A fundamental flaw that is missing in the fashion industry value-chain is the lack of a cohesive representative body that can advocate on behalf of the industry.  Clothing and textile manufacturers as well as retailers have such representative bodies.  These bodies exert pressure and can influence policy development.

The corporate sector plays an important economic role through sponsorship, introducing another layer of branding into the mix.  Relationships with the manufacturing sector – especially in terms of the availability of textiles – are key ingredients in this value-chain, posing distinct challenges for accessibility and sustainability of operations.

The South African Apparel Industry

The longstanding and prevalent threat to South Africa's apparel manufacturing sector is / was the "Chinese syndrome", resulting in the implementation of the quotas (that are due to end on the 31 December 2008).  Interestingly, cheap apparel imports to South Africa are Chinese-syndromenot a new phenomenon, as this 1982 article shows.  For various reasons, our apparel industry did not adapt in line with arising global contexts, so that 25 years later, the industry is still in a quandary as to how to counter the hazards.

Over a decade, imports from China grew at an alarming rate:

1995 =              11-million units imported

2004 =              389-million units imported

2005 =              86% apparel imports came from China

2006 =              567-million units imported

As some of my research participants commented (as detailed in my book – Inside Out: SA Fashion Designers' Sewing Success), the industry needed to exert more energy towards finding solutions for its own salvation than on fuelling the divisions between stances of government, retailers, manufacturers and unions around the issue of Chinese or other imports.

When the quotas were implemented, the major retailers simply found alternative Asian sources for their stock. Consequently, imports from China did decrease – by 30% in the first quarter of 2007; but imports from these alternative suppliers for the same period grew:

Malaysia = 56%.  Sri Lanka = 40% Myanmar (Burma) = 34% Vietnam = 34% Cambodia = 33%

The effects of these imports caused and continue to cause profound economic turbulence in our textile and apparel industries, as has been well documented in the media and in research studies.  The following graph shows the resultant decline in employment, which continues to have a detrimental effect on our economy, considering that approximately five people are dependent on every individual person employed in clothing and textile manufacturing.


In March 2007, in collaboration with a colleague, I conducted a survey of apparel manufacturers based in KwaZulu-Natal to ascertain the state of the industry and whether the quotas had been beneficial.  Important findings in relation to the fashion sector are as follows:

The diminishment of new product-lines correlates with the statistics already cited, confirming that imports from alternative suppliers had increased.  Usage of local manufacturers has remained relatively static, and very little stock is being sourced from local designers or made locally.

The issue of price, instigated by retail buyers, propels pressure down the value-chain, with the manufacturers urging designers to create stock that allows for tight margins; however, this compels designers to pay more for outsourcing, which negatively affects their retail price points. 

However, as the relationship between retailers and manufacturers changes around consolidation of supplier bases, some positive outcomes for the designers could be contemplated: designers could be positioned to influence both manufacturing costs and production systems.    

In viewing the role of government in strategy development for the industry, there is a glaring undervaluing of the importance of the fashion industry, and I will address this subject in detail later in this paper.  Simply put, it is difficult to discern that government does have a cohesive strategy.  Although due credit must be given for the creation and development of linkages between fashion designers and the informal economy – and for the Department of Arts and Culture's support for the Sanlam SAFW – there are concerns to be raised when reviewing a historical record of statements emanating from government. 

In March 2006, Shareen Osman from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said: "Government is working on a strategic vision." Two years later, the DTI said they were "still working on a plan."  In August 2007, the Trade and Industry Minister said that the Customised Sector Program (CSP) was being formalised.  One of the aims of the CSP is to facilitate export opportunities with the European Union. Six months later, South Africa decided not to sign the Economic Partnership with the EU, thereby eradicating one of the CSP's potential mechanisms for achieving its strategic objectives.  Government has also been ineffectual in dealing with the ongoing dispute between retailers and manufacturers, who are themselves partly culpable for hampering cohesive policy development.

In 2005, the Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture said: "There is undoubtedly a huge market out there for fashion designers in the mass market, in high fashion department stores, in specialty stores and even with individual customers.  This can be a gold mine for young emerging fashion designers."  How many fashion designers would agree with this statement?  If there were such opportunities in the "mass market" – putting aside the "lack of business skills" issue – why do we not see an abundance of such design content in our shops? 

Our industry players – every one of us – must confront these questions, and work concertedly with the answers.

Deconstructing the SA Fashion Industry

Some fundamental questions for focus are:

  1. Is the industry fragmented?
  2. Does the industry need one collective voice for advocacy? (Apparel/Textile Manufacturers & Retailers) have such a voice through industry bodies used for advocacy.
  3. Why is there silence/apathy from designers – relating to advocacy?
  4. Do fashion colleges provide adequate training in business skills?
  5. Does government take the fashion sector seriously & do they have a cohesive strategy?
  6. How could the industry address the turf disputes relating to national and provincial Fashion Week events?
  7. Should there be better management of entry qualification for Fashion Week events and other major shows?
  8. Do designers think it is important to interact more with manufacturers?
  9. Are retailers wholly responsible for the lack of local design in their outlets?
  10. Are fashion councils effective and if so, how and in which areas?
  11. Is there adequate media coverage of fashion-as-business?
  12. How will designers tackle the shortage of textiles?

There are, of course, many more questions, but these will create a solid foundation for targeted and incisive understandings of what needs to be done. 

For several reasons, the industry is deeply fragmented.  The following diagram indicates the current fashion promotion landscape:


As far as I know, we have six Fashion Week events annually, and through SAFW there are regional events in Durban and Cape Town.  The South African fashion calendar begins in March and ends around September.  Added to these are other fashion expos, such as the Durban Designer Collection, the Old Mutual Awards, Design Indaba, the Cape Town Fashion Festival (SACTWU) and possibly others in various stages of incarnation. 

Understandably, analysis of this landscape is very complex, emotional with the two main players struggling for agency, space and domination. The proliferation of Fashion Week events is concerning in the sense that we risk splitting the designers into two camps.  Part of my analysis of the fashion landscape focuses on the language used by the two parties in their promotion of South African fashion.  Both use the words "my" or "our" designers – which suggests that a degree of "ownership" of respective designers is being claimed. 

There is also evidence that both organisations promote their success on quantity rather than quality.  AFI reports that 8 000 people attended the 2007 launch of Audi Johannesburg Fashion Week with nearly R31-million in media coverage gained; R26-million in media coverage for their Cape Town and Durban Fashion Weeks was achieved and 15 000 people attended a SAFW event; these are impressive figures, but it is unclear as to how they indicate tangible economic advances for all the participants and for the industry itself.

Is it not the substance of the media coverage and attendance records that counts? Several designers have commented on the attendance figures.  The following are representative of most of the replies:

"The vast majority of the public who come to these shows are part of the glamour set … they really have very little interest in supporting local fashion."

"We need more manufacturers, buyers and industry players to attend these events … what is happening is that these events are becoming more extravagant social highlights, where one can collect freebies and be seen."

The recurrent, burning question is: should there be one Fashion Week, or more?  My surveys reflect that the vast majority of the designer-respondents would prefer the latter.  For example, in the last quarter of 2007, I ran a poll on my website asking: "Should there be one Fashion Week in South Africa?" Approximately 200 people responded, with 39% said yes and 61% saying no. Many younger designers (as apposed to established designers) feel that more platforms for showcasing their creations would provide them with a larger scope for marketing and business opportunities.  There is no debate that Fashion Weeks are crucial for heightening designers' visibility, but the mechanisms of media, advertising, knowledge transfer and exchange that these events could facilitate constitute the real turnkeys for their success. My research reflects that not many designers know how to take full advantage of the opportunities presented at these events.

Fashion Weeks should be used to network further downstream in the value chain, with the manufacturing sector, suppliers and buyers. Numerous designers and editors complain about the absence of buyers and other industry roleplayers at these events. A finer point should be made in terms of broadening the definition of "buyers". More representatives from retail chain stores and boutiques as well as textile and clothing manufacturers should be induced to attend, with a view to forming business partnerships with designers to produce cost-effective commercially attractive apparel and finding skilled people in marketing to key outlets, whether large, medium or small.  This would ease the retail buyers' burden of sourcing locally designed and manufactured stock. To be fair, SAFW has built a solid combination of couture appeal and business stimulation through "semi-trade" events and a clear strategy has been formulated for newcomers to emerge at these shows, whereas AFI is less recognised for facilitation participation in their events.

The Durban Fashion Week, which is part of the AFI stable, is establishing itself as a learning platform for student and emerging designers.  The innovative project between AFI and SABC TV presenters is a stimulus to promote local fashion to the SA consumer.  However, this is a primary example where external evaluation can benefit the project by gauging the responses and the actual economic returns for the designers participating in this venture

Several established designers are critical about the multiplicity of Fashion Weeks:

"All these FWs have done much damage to the industry … international magazine editors think we are a joke … designers chosen to participate in the other AFI FW have very little commercial knowledge or input into the market … these are all pretext for these designers to pump up their egos … if all these events (barring the original) were so successful, why do we not see more locally made and designed clothing in retail outlets? List the 10 most successful designers in SA and then try to buy their products from the local mall … you can't.  It is not about being famous for one week – it's about growing a successful business that can stand up to the imports."

Some designers question who would manage a single Fashion Week event and how.

"We need more FWs …. If there were only one, how would designers be selected and who would be the big chief?  I have a few clients in Joburg, Cape Town and Durban and I need to show my products in those areas."

While reviewing the policies around the various Fashion Weeks, I at first thought that the degree of control exerted by SAFW (in forbidding fashion designers to show the same range they had shown at AFI events) was hegemonic and ethically wrong.  Reflecting on this, I have come to see some logic in SAFW's policy.  By gathering views from fashion media I found support for this logic. The consumers, the buyers and the media do not want to see the same designs at two AFI and an SAFW event in the same year.  They would prefer to see evidence of the individual designer's ability to create a multitude of sellable designs within a short space of time, thus demonstrating that the designer is not a "one-hit wonder", but is prolific, versatile, adaptable and capable of sustaining production despite the challenges that characterise the industry. 

The next burning issue pertaining to fashion-as-business revolves around the question:  Why are we not emulating international processes?  The market for high-end haute couture apparel is small and whilst some designers have found their niche within it, the industry must begin to focus on producing garments that will reach a wider public and can be mass-produced locally and rapidly. 

Access to textiles is an obstacle in this context, but other intrinsic features of a commercially viable garment, such as the cut, detailing and third-party embellishments, need to be mainstreamed into the production process.   We need to see growth in purchasing of locally designed ranges on the ground, not only as unique pieces shown on a Fashion Week catwalk that are economically prohibitive to manufacture. At overseas Fashion Weeks, buyers from retail chain-stores, private boutiques, textile and garment manufacturers have access to pre-event collections, where they are shown the commercial versions of the creations to be showcased at the main events and featured in the fashion media coverage.

In researching global Fashion Weeks, I calculated that about 39 international Fashion Weeks would take place in 2008. 

The media play a core role in the promotion of South Africa's fashion and its designers, but coverage attends to focus more on the glamour of fashion and the celebrities on show than on the economic significance of this output.  Aspirant designers and consumers alike would benefit from reporting that is more investigative, and that explores fashion as a hard business path. 

Earlier this year I gave a lecture to design students at a prestigious design college, where nearly half of the class had given up their studies because "learning about fashion was not what we thought it was." Many youngsters wanting to enter the fashion industry have superficial knowledge of its commercial demands because they are consuming media reports that reflect the aesthetics and social allure of the fashion arena, rather than the competitive realities and the entrepreneurial spirit of the craft: the arduous production setting, the financial risks, the need for diligent, intelligent marketing and innovation in both creative output and business strategy.

To deepen consumer education, both the media and the fashion industry should devise ways of stimulating local support of local design, and to change South African buying behaviour.  If the price, quality and availability of local designs could be brought in line with imported brands, local demand can be cultivated and sustained, and messaging the preference for buying local would be easier and more powerful. 

The notion of "industry insiders" is another source of tension and dissent.  For example, in 2007, the South African Fashion Awards committee (promoted as the "Oscars" of SA fashion design) selected six designers. In another instance, four designers were promoted through the C'est Couture initiative (underwritten by AFI) as "ambassadors of SA Fashion" that enabled them to show at the 2007 Paris Fashion Week.  Widespread criticism of the selection process in these cases emerged as follows:

  1. Who were these industry insiders?
  2. How many designers entered the competition?
  3. What criteria were set for nomination of the six & four designers?

There has also been much debate about the cost involved in entering and putting together Fashion Weeks, with SAFW saying that it is imperative to rationalise event costs. Africa Fashion International claims that designers are not charged to participate in their events.  Yet, in 2007, a group of young designers protested outside the Cape Town Fashion Week against the entry fee required by AFI. The article I wrote on this at the time elicited a number of responses, including one from AFI explaining that the young designers were prohibited from entering their work because they were not deemed to have the ability to "produce orders of a large scale."  This is a valid argument, but as a corporate philosophy, AFI should apply it consistently. How many of the designers who participate in their events can produce on "a large scale"?  What does "large scale" mean in practice? 

These scenarios and critiques point to the need for AFI event organisers to compose and publicise clear terms of reference around the goals and entry requirements for participation in Fashion Weeks. It is worth noting that SAFW has such a strategy easily accessible on their website.  Across the industry, clarity of terminology for describing categories of designers is essential: at present, apart from established designers with recognized labels and long standing as business entities in the industry), alternative categories are arbitrarily identified as: "emerging", "graduate" and "student.  These tags lead to confusion, disappointment, disillusionment and antagonism.

A basic model for these categories, which are very important for the future wellbeing of the local fashion sector, could be:

Emerging = a designer with a relatively new, formal business set-up;

Graduate = a designer who has qualified at a fashion college and making his or her debut as such;

Student = a designer with a portfolio of great promise registered at an accredited fashion academy but yet to complete their formal qualification.


What has been achieved in the South African fashion industry thus far is phenomenal, and everyone involved in it has added value to the growth potential of this vital economic sector. To preserve this talent and ensure its flourishing, there is no time for procrastination in the face of its challenges.

External analysis from independent individuals or companies with a comprehensive understanding of the industry should be commissioned by the industry to conduct monitoring and evaluation exercises.  Ongoing collaboration among industry players is not a battle to be fought, but a united, proactive front to be formed so that it can interact and lobby with government, retailers and manufacturers.

As a springboard for this process, the ReDress Consultancy on-line forum is open to all who wish to forge this alliance; responses will be collated into a concept paper, which can serve as a foundation for collective mobilisation towards this goal. Such alternative platforms for designers' label promotion and professional profiles offer year-round, global exposure.  The ReDress Consultancy's specialist marketing and media expertise is available to create brand awareness not only for designers, but also for models and model agencies, show producers and all other affiliated practitioners.     

It would not be trite to say that a vibrant local fashion sector is crucial for nation-building.  South Africa's apparel industry has been drowning in a tsunami of cheap imports.  This context is shaped by complex issues and forces, but the abiding reality is that thousands of our fellow-citizens have lost their jobs, and with them, their individual sense of being and belonging.  No designer label can restore this livelihood and sense of self – unless it is a South African one that recreates a viable, ethical local clothing and textile industry.

The "wearing down" of our clothing and textile industry calls upon us to think hard about the nameless, faceless – but no less worthy – people who fashion the goods we use to "make something" of ourselves.  It is time to re-vision ourselves as part of one human family – and to understand how the pursuit of received glamour warps these relationships.

Only we can do this, and we must act now.

Written by: Renato Palmi

The ReDress Consultancy-South Africa

@ March 2008

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