Beauty and the Brains. How our local fashion designers can be placed among the best in the world!

May 21, 2013

Photo by Photofuzion Photography
Blinding lights come flashing from every angle in the room as the achingly emaciated figures, wrapped in couture designs created by some of the world’s most famous designers, comes marching down the runway, audibly focusing to keep from tumbling down their 9 inch heels.
There is an awe-inspiring silence as the who’s who of the fashion industry sits in the front row intensely taking notes in their little black books of every perfectly crafted garment that walks on by, either nodding in approval or not nodding at all. It’s the South African fashion week and the atmosphere is so heavily fueled with glitz and glamour if anyone would dare light a match, I’m sure the place would explode. 

But fashion week, I soon learn while scrutinising this much anticipated occasion, the Oscars of the fashion world and the highlight of every plausible fashion designer’s career, is not all about the glitz and glamour and beautiful people parading around in beautiful attire. Au contraire! Fashion week creates the ideal platform for new business deals to come about and partnerships to form, an event where new marketing strategies are discussed, debated, rejected and settled upon and networking and ideas runs on overflow. From afar this event seems almost superficial to the eye, but becoming a part of this business – and that is exactly what I’ve learned it is – requires much more than beauty and talent.

Fashion designer and Stylist: Kim Craig

When I meet with fashion design graduate and stylist Kim Craig in a cosy little cocktail bar on the busy Sea point strip in Cape Town, she readily confirms my findings. Kim, who’s burning desire it is to take on the world with her fashion suave tells me that even while studying the arts and crafts of fashion designing at Lisof – leaders In the Science Of Fashion in South Africa, and even though it was extremely rewarding and probably the best three years of her life, it was the commercial stream that ultimately fascinated her most.

So when in her final year Kim had to make a decision which direction she wanted to go within the fashion industry, she decided on business, marketing and media – a decision she’s never come to regret. I also thought it very interesting and somewhat flattering that myself and this incredibly level-headed blonde from Johannesburg has something in common – turns out she too worked in insurance for a number of years before realising that it was no environment for her colourful personality and impulsively took the calculated risk and left the bland concrete walls behind, along with the ‘security’ it provided, to pursue a career that would revive her creativity again.
Right now Kim is pulling out all the stops to turn her dream into a reality and aspires to not only style the rich and fashion-senseless, but more importantly be respected by her clients – women and men alike who loves to power dress or simply look good for that special occasion. She believes that had it not been for her business mind-set and the choices she made while in college, she would still be designing clothes that would most likely never get out the front door, Like so many of our young designers out there. Not because of how bad they are, but because she’d most likely have no idea how to start and maintain a successful business. When asked what her recipe for success is in this highly competitive industry, as if to make sure it’s forever imprinted in my mind and the minds of our readers, she repeats the words that’s now become almost synonymous to the fashion industry – “Business, business and more business…also be unique, work hard and wake up every day motivated and determined”, she quickly adds.

Designer and Stylist: Kim Craig
Photo by Photofuzion Photography

Like myself, Ms Craig is a huge fan of the SA fashion icon Gavin Rajah. Did you know – she asks me excitedly – that this founder of Cape Town Fashion Week and renowned couturier and business-man succeeded, against all odds, in getting South African designers to show at Paris Fashion Week? Now of cause I knew this from the extensive research I’ve done prior to our interview, but to hear those words coming from Kim, to whom Rajah’s devotion to the fashion world means plenty to her career and the careers of others in the industry, brought a sense of conviction to this impressive notion. And when creativity is not oozing from this amazing artist’s every pore and Mr Rajah takes a little break from the business typhoon in him, you’ll most probably find him in the middle of one of his favourite past-times which includes anything from horseback riding on the enchanting white sands of Cape Town’s Noordhoek beach, drinking tea in the beautiful lush gardens of the Mount Nelson hotel in the city centre or lounging in the presidential suite of the Table Bay beach front hotel. All deserving luxury for one so noble, I’d say.

Alas, although it’s become quite apparent that our designers certainly do not lack creativity nor originality, many are still lacking the very necessary resources required to make it big or simply make it at all in this much coveted industry – a profound understanding of business being right at the top of the list with lack of available fabric both affordable and high in quality and little to no support from our local fashion retailers following on a short thread. As another up and coming fashion designer mentions on her blog “This is why you see so many South African designers using the same fabrics. It’s not because they lack imagination, it’s because that’s all they can find!” Imagine the likes of David Tlale, CGDT Kluk and Gavin Rajah – whose designs have walked the ramps from Europe to the US time and time again. Good business sense may not be the sole reason for their multi-million rand success, but without it I wouldn’t be writing about them today. Tough shoes to fill I’m willing to bet my jimmy choo’s…or is it…considering Mr Rajah started his business with only R500 to his name – a loan he took out by his parents and was never asked to repay.

Photo by Photofuzion Photography

However rare, every once in a while mother luck do come along and waves her magic wand, which reminds me of a time when I was much younger and just started my first job. I remember wandering around the exquisite Jenni Button Boutique whenever I had a break – unable to afford anything in there and completely unashamed I would enter this little haven and my happy place with its elegantly styled mannequins, tantalising music soothing to the senses and beautifully groomed shop assistants ready to jump to your side by the slightest tilt of your head. Amusingly, this always took me back to the scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts enters an exclusive boutique on the “fashion famous” Rodeo Drive and judged on her (hooker-like)  appearance is then rudely asked to leave before she even gets to buy a thing. The thought made me chuckle and left me with a great sense of relief at just how friendly Jenni’s staff always were. Back then, and in my mind, the fashion industry was all black and white – if you had the talent and creativity to make beautiful clothes then yes you’ll most definitely be an international household name. How terribly wrong I was! For Jenni it was simply a case of “being in the right place at the right time” she told Entrepreneur magazine back in 2009. As was Ms Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman. Unfortunately for too many of our country’s rising designers, this sort of luck does not come that easily.

It certainly did not come that easy for Kim. After finishing school and a further three years in the insurance industry, Kim finally made the choice to go to college and pursue her passion. Having never before practiced her creative skills or any art form for that matter, she took a chance at Graphic designing. The applicant was required to do an on-the-spot still-life drawing and Kim was refused entry into the college as her drawing was not up to standard. With the option to do a bridging course, but no guarantee that she will be accepted, she made peace with the idea that maybe Graphic designing was not for her after all. So after picking herself up and moving forward, sure that she was meant to do something great with her creative desire, she opted for fashion designing instead and fate lead her straight to Lisof – “a good private college and well known in the fashion industry” a friend of hers promised. “Lisof is where my passion was enrooted even deeper. I learned so much, from conceptualisation to drawing, cutting and sewing of a garment” Kim reminisces “The first garment I made myself – from start to finish – was for the Lisof end of year fashion show and was created on inspiration I drew while watching the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The rest, as they say, is history.”

When asked what fashion truly means to her, she gently puts down her Pims and Lemonde which she’s been sipping on ever since we arrived, leans closer, arms folded on the table as if to make this clear she starts and looks me right in the eyes,” Fashion to me is everything. Something that’s built into my system. It’s in everything I do and everywhere I go. I see style as always being important. If someone meets you for the first time and you’re looking a mess, like you have been working in the garden the entire day or simply as though you have no interest in taking care of yourself, what do you think they think of you are as a person? Image is more than a look it’s a person’s whole approach. This is what makes the possibilities in this industry so endless.”
And true to Kim’s words, the opportunities most certainly and most reassuringly to other aspiring artists out there, are endless. Board member of the world fashion council, founder of the Sanlam SA fashion week and Shoprite/Checkers business woman of the year 2010 Lucilla Booyzen has made many of these opportunities possible and opened rusty old, mould eaten doors for many locals in the industry. Ms Booyzen, with the tremendous help from her business intellect and passion to see the industry flourish, introduced a SA Fashion Week mentorship programme where local designers are educated on marketing, stock control, selling and planning their ranges, and managing their budgets. This initiative motivated and changed the face of all participating designers, improving their output and minimizing their losses. Thus putting a stamp on the fact that Beauty, without brains and a knack for business will benefit our young designers very little to none. When Lucilla refers to Lisof, the fashion institute where Kim got her colours as designer and where Lucilla collaborated with many of their students, she observes proudly that the fashion industry in South Africa is indeed in great shape. Marianne Fassler, whom I’ve heard has been referred to many in the industry as the Vivienne Westwood of South Africa, concurs to this observation and has even gone so far as to offer Lisof students positions within her company.
The world famous designer Alexander McQueen once said “there is no better designer, than nature”. McQueen may not have referred to Africa at the time, but he sure as hell could have as our country have, most certainly, been dealt a fair share of nature’s beauty. With our remarkable landscapes, textures and colours it is no wonder our designers have no shortage of creativity and imagination. Unfortunately, as our fashion industry is moving forward with the rest of the world, so are the expectations and creativity accompanied with sound business knowledge might just get your head out the clouds and secure your place among the stars.

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