By: Renato Palmi

An exciting new project under the auspices of the Ifa Lethu ("Our Heritage") Foundation will be launched at the 2007 MTN Durban Fashion Week in June. Five prominent Durban-based fashion designers under the direction of Greg Wallis, Chairperson of the Durban Fashion Council, are busy finalising their designs for the Ifa Lethu fashion brand.

Creating seams between local fashion to South Africa�s arts and cultural heritage is an initiative aimed at inspiring the nation's youth with a sense of pride in both their historic roots and a commitment to innovative South African products, explains Narissa Ramdhani, Ifa Lethu�s CEO.

After many hours of screening, the five designers: Karen Monk-Klijnstra, Gugu Msimang, Vino, Steve Manday and Bonga Bhengu - all with impeccable credentials in the fashion arena - were selected for Ifa Lethu's debut foray into fashion, on the basis of their ranges being �street-smart, with a hint of ethnicity, aimed at a youth market between the ages of 16 and 24�, says Wallis.

Founded in 2005, the Ifa Lethu Foundation aims to create and foster an ethos of enlightenment and healing through the reclamation of South Africa�s unique heritage. Wallis is extremely proud to be part of the team taking the Ifa Lethu range from local catwalks to retail outlets within South Africa, into Africa and beyond.

Wallis confirms that the designs seen at the 2007 MTN Durban Fashion Week event can be moved into mass production and mainstream merchandising. The recurrent problem faced by many South African designers arises from a set of conditions that hinder the marketing and manufacture of the ranges showcased at fashion events, while retaining excellent standards of quality and balancing in their costing to meet the needs of local consumers.

Wallis says that these challenges will be addressed through diligent control over the commercial aspects of the project, so freeing the five designers to focus their energy and imagination on creative styling and wearable garments. Furthermore, with the Foundation being strongly committed to the business success of this venture, and governed by a board made up of influential and distinguished South African leaders in their fields - chaired by Dr. Mamphela Ramphele - Wallis has no doubt that the range will �make people sit up and take note.�

The entire production will be "proudly South African" � thus providing a useful case study demonstrating that with the correct skills, costing and collaboration in the value chain, locally made apparel can compete successfully with foreign imports and become globally recognised.

The concept of five individual designers bringing their unique signatures under one brand name is a luminous example of the effectiveness of co-branding, where one or more brands are sold under a single "umbrella-label" - in this case Ifa Lethu - that synergises the designers and the brand to form a new essence. Wallis says that the detailed marketing strategy is still in development, but has no doubt that this initiative, and the concept itself, will be a resounding triumph for the designers and for Ifa Lethu, giving new hope and opportunity to the South African clothing industry.

On a warm cloudless night in May, with the sound of the Indian Ocean basting the beach, the 2007 MTN Durban Fashion Week (MTN-DFW) was officially launched at a new venue � the Suncoast Hotel and Towers, situated in the heart of Durban�s famous Golden Mile. Designers mingled with socialites and the elite of the city's fashion industry. The event will run over four days, from 27-30 June.

Thirty-four South African designers will present the products of their creative skills during 18 shows on a ramp set up in the unique glass encapsulated 504-seat marquee. One of the primary aims of the 2007 MTN Durban Fashion Week is to catalyse the careers of emerging designers. "After a national search, 14 young designers were selected to take part in the MTN Young Designers event", said Vanashree Singh, convenor and director of the MTN-DFW. Singh said the future of South Africa's industry lies in the hands and eyes of the new generation fashion designers, and the showcase event is "geared to promote the business of fashion and to allow these designers to network with industry leaders."

One young designer is Michelle Lowe from the School of Fashion Design in Pietermaritzburg, whose range is a ready-to-wear bohemian look for the "metro-male": "I am so excited about being part of the Durban Fashion Week and I know I will learn a lot from this experience." Lauren Taylor from Durban's University of Technology is another participant, who describes her garments as representing "feminine elegance with clean-cut lines and a focus on promoting environmental responsibility. Another young designer taking part in the (MTN-DFW) is Melissa Paulus from Linea Academy. She entered because of "sheer ambition to be recognised as a South African designer" and felt that being put under the spotlight at an "acclaimed event such as MTN Durban Fashion Week was an ideal opportunity "to market her range "Mel.P". Melissa says her range that will be shown at the (MTN-DFW) is called "Madam Mondaine"", promoting the strength of women through femininity.

The global fashion industry generates both glamour and huge profits. The World Trade Organisation's 2005 statistics reflect a total of $276 billion, equating to 2.7% of total global apparel merchandise trade. In 2006, global sales of high-end men's fashion totalled $47 billion. Even with the alarming decline in the South African clothing and textile industries, and many clothing companies being compelled to close, the industry employs in the region of 200 000 people, not counting the thousands of casual workers employed on an ad-hoc basis in the industry. Statistics show that for every person employed in this sector nationally, the livelihoods of a further five individuals are affected.

The role of Fashion Week events in promoting South African fashion design is vital to the growth and sustainability of South Africa's clothing sector. Fashion Weeks create a nodal point of reference, a temporary cluster of all role-players in the value chain operation providing space to gather to network, exchange ideas and regenerate the industry. For the designers, it is an ideal opportunity to market their creative statements.

However, as Thokozani Mbatha, a Durban-based designer whose popular label Black Pepper is visible in many local boutiques, says "Designers cannot be complacent when it comes to marketing their brands. The MTN Durban Fashion Week enables designers to meet with the media and interact with consumers and industry players, but it is important for each designer to continue rolling out their marketing strategies after the event, and they can only do this if they have a clear business plan."

Many South African designers encounter problems in advancing their ranges from the catwalk into the retail market. Research indicates that there is still a discernable gap in the value chain between the designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers, which prohibits many designers from mass-producing their ranges cost-effectively. Greg Wallis, Chairperson of the Durban Fashion Council, says that "the role of the designer has changed remarkably in recent years and designers must realise that they are business-people and not merely creative artists".

Balancing creativity with business skills is an area in which business development specialists can play a vital role, by training designers to manage the branding, marketing and merchandising of their individual labels. The trend of partnerships between designer and business developers is growing in Europe and this is a model that should be emulated, with relevant contextual customisation, by the South African fashion sector.

In her opening address at the MTN-DFW launch, Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Director of Lesiureworx, said, "I am always astounded at the creativity of South African fashion designers, and believe there is so much potential for the industry and for them. The Durban Fashion Week makes an important contribution to the development of the South African fashion industry we are working hard to move the image of the industry beyond the catwalk and into the realm of business."

Vanashree Singh said that many of South Africa's designers who have achieved local and global success began their careers in Durban, which is seen as a vibrant breeding ground for South African design. "South African consumers should support local designers by visiting the MTN Durban Fashion Week to witness the birth of new designs and seeking out these labels in local boutiques."

Encouraging South African consumers to buy local, as prices of global brands become more affordable and high-street low-value retailers cash in on the ability to source cheap apparel from developing countries other than China, is a daunting challenge. A critical path towards overcoming this situation could be created by � literally and figuratively, stitching up the divide between designers, manufacturers and retailers, and so collectively create agile value chains that can meet the demands of faster changing trends. We need to recognise and strengthen our design industry as an essential link in the value chain � the point at which artistic ideas and cultural trends are converted into saleable clothing.

The MTN Durban Fashion Week is a major aesthetic and functional forum for this aspect of fashion business. Owners of CMT operations, textile manufacturers, buyers for the major retail chains and boutique-owners should attend the shows to forge crucial partnerships with our local talent; in turn, designers should optimise the exposure offered by the DFW event to capture both the imagination of the public and of business developers.

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Compiled by Renato Palmi
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