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Project South Africa: Day 2 Lesedi Craft Village and JoBurg Fashion District


After a late night of shows at South African Fashion Week, today commenced with a cultural experience of South Africa at Lesedi Craft Village followed by a tour of the Fashion District in Johannesburg.

Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural village awaits those willing to participate in an adventure that reveals the mystical cultures and traditions of the people of Africa, steeped in tribal folklore and ancestral traditions.

On arrival we were welcomed in the traditional African style of tribal singing and dancing then we were able to look around the many colourful and fascinating aspects of the cultures of the people of Lesedi. The multicultural craft village displayed beading, felting, leather and embroidery all beautifully crafted and showcased amongst a stunningly colourful backdrop. What a fantastic way to start the day!

Next on the agenda was a guided tour around The Fashion District in Johannesburg by the Executive Director Rees Mann.

Businessman Rees Mann, the mover and shaker behind the revitalisation of the fashion district over the past two years, says: “We’ll be promoting Pan-African designs and ideas. We don’t want to look continually to Europe for ideas.”

The fashion district takes up 20 blocks – End Street in the east, Von Wielligh Street in the west, Market Street in the south and Kerk Street in the north. The northern section of the district has several Art Deco residential blocks, but it is otherwise largely an industrial area with textile factories and clothing shops.

We began the tour in the Fashion District Wholesalers which opened in 1994. It offered a mix of traditional African fabrics and trimmings as well as more commercial pieces. The African inspired cloth called Shweshwe, a magical blue fabric, had a fascinating history which Rees shared with us.

The story begins in Europe where the fabric was imported from Asia, mainly India. The cloth was originally made using natural indigo dye but a synthetic substitute as well as two additional colours (a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red) is now used. The original German Print, ‘Ujamani’ or ‘Shweshwe’ fabric was introduced to South Africa with the German settlers in 1858/9. Xhosa women took a particular liking to this stiff blue fabric and gradually replaced their animal skin garments for these newly available cotton ones. Over the years Shweshwe fabric has become an intricate part of traditional ceremonies in the rural areas.

Slowly the production of Shweshwe fabric has disappeared from Europe and today the only known producers of the Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric are in South Africa. This factory is 45% owned by the workers, creating a sustainable future for them in the Eastern Cape. Authentic Shweshwe fabrics can be identified by a trademark back-stamp on the fabric: the Three Leopards, the South African version of the original and traditional Three Cats trademark or Toto 6. The stiff touch, smell and taste of the fabric are also unique ways to ensure the fabric is genuine.

After this we went across the road to review the refurbished buildings and space which will soon hold the hub of creativity, including the world’s first ever outdoor catwalk, retail studios, VIP areas and even a health and beauty section.  The retail studios will give a vibe very much like that of Camden in London. Then in the centre of the square is the world’s first ever catwalk, where Rees explained he wanted everyone to be able to show their designs to an audience on this runway. It will be for both students and more established designers and the idea will be to give the designer the whole experience of putting on a fashion show, they have to think about the music and the styling not just the garments.

The fashion district has been in the eastern part of the CBD for over half a century, with tailors and seamstresses bursting out of its buildings. It houses over 200 fashion-related businesses, including cut, make and trim operators, a budget clothing retail industry and the studios of several established designers like Clive Rundle, who is said to be the most creative designer here and a name to really look out for. His show at SA Fashion Week this season is entitled The Lesbian Wedding and will show a real artistic vision down the catwalk in challenging concepts.

The overall idea is that customers, both local and tourists, can interact with the designers – if they like the style but would like the garment in another size or fabric, they can go upstairs and consult with the designer, giving precise specifications for what they require. The eventual aim is to put pressure on the clothing chain stores and boutiques to come to the district, interact with the designers, and order garments to display in their shops.

Mann, who has been in the fashion business since 1981, has single-handedly been responsible for reviving the fashion district after it took a dive at the end of the 1980s, largely the result of globalisation and dumping of cheap garments on the local market.

In the last two years it’s found its feet once more: factories have opened up again as smaller, more efficient operations, and most importantly, they’ve now found a more secure, niche market in ethnic African designs which can’t be produced by Asian sweatshops because they’re very individualistic and localised.

There is so much more to talk about here but it would be impossible, the whole concept is simply fascinating. It shows a real turn around for fashion in South Africa and finally designers with talent and ambition now have a hub of creativity and opportunity to explore and turn their dreams into a reality.

It was a pleasure to meet Reiss Mann and all he can contribute to the International Fashion Fusion project. Discussions are now under way to allow the selected winners of the design competition for asos.com for the International Fashion Fusion project to visit the Fashion Kapitol project in Johannesburg combing two great Fashion Capitals together!. This will be an amazing experience for all concerned providing a real transfer of knowledge at all levels.

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