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26 October 2016
Author: Vesta Zemaite

In a previous blog, we attempted a glance at fashion in Africa as a whole – a rather broad task.  In this one, we zoom in onto South Africa, which joins Nigeria as the leading fashion market in Africa. Urban Studies observes that South Africa went from having less than 250 shopping centres in 2002 to having more than 1,400 in 2010.  South African Fashion Week is also the only B2B (business to business) fashion week on the continent.

In a nation with a fondness for buying clothes and one that likes to exercise this penchant in shopping malls rather than on high streets, these are just a few of numerous very clear signs being given off to international and home-grown retailers. However, there are significant questions and issues to be addressed  – many with quite uncertain resolutions.

As global fast-fashion powerhouses such as Zara, H & M, and Forever 21 start to look to establish presences in South Africa, they must cope with prohibitive import duties of up to 45% - far higher than in Europe and Asia.   They will also face stiff competition from domestic low-cost retailer Mr. Price, which has a finger squarely on the nation’s pulse, both in terms of the often conservative fashion sensibility and of navigating the country’s complex fashion infrastructure while turning a profit.

However, as the nation becomes more fashion savvy and hungry for trends and insight, European brands can help to satisfy and whet new appetites.  Thithi Nteta, a South African blogger, stylist and brand consultant working with international and domestic brands alike, says to The Guardian, “Foreign brands aren't going to replace the price point that's feasible for most South Africans, but they can be a destination shopping location, or a novelty.  For us working in fashion, having a Zara or Topshop is quite a new and exciting thing."

The question for many in the burgeoning South African fashion industry – which includes long-time icons such as World Fashion Council representative Lucia Booyzen, the founder of the previously mentioned South African Fashion Week – is how to nurture evolving endemic creativity at the same time as welcoming the business reality of international fast fashion to the country and building supplier networks. Mr. Price injects money back into the economy by utilising opportunities available to domestic companies to buy in a cost-effective manner directly from local manufacturers; admirably, 30% of all Mr. Price products come via this channel.  The company also works with Elle magazine to identify young South African designers and commission them to put together capsule collections, which are then manufactured locally.  There is only so far that such things from one company can go, however.

Thithi Nteta points out, “It's really not a choice between Mr. Price and a foreign competitor. It's a choice between Topshop and a local small-scale designer. If someone is able to spend 1,000 ZAR on a basic dress from Topshop, they are also able to spend that on a local designer.”

Lucia Booyzen is seeking solutions, one being joining forces with former BOSS Woman by Hugo BOSS brand manager Annette Pringle-Kölsch in setting up wholesale and marketing agency The Fashion Agency – the only showroom of its kind in the country.  Working on the behalf of South African designers, the agency encourages export through a range of initiatives, a long list of reliable contacts, and by offering seasoned advice on logistics.  A huge hurdle for the agency, as well as any South African brand seeking to export independently, will be to source solid CMT (Cut, Make, Trim) expertise as well as pinning down other elements in the infrastructure.  If anyone can do it, it’s certainly Booyzen.

Another major player in strengthening the South African fashion industry is Anita Stanbury, the chief executive of the South African National Fashion Council, which has a R10 million (6 million Euro / 7 million USD / 5 million GBP) budget at its disposal, courtesy of South African taxpayers.  The priority for Stanbury is to return value to her stakeholders by creating jobs and uniting the disparate parts of the industry into a whole.  She remarks to the African Mail & Guardian, “We want to make sure that when we put funding into something that it is going to be catalytic in developing the fashion, clothing and textiles value chain well into the future.”

The innovative travelling showroom MERGE ZA offers young South African fashion designers eager to start exporting an intimate, protean way to showcase the finer points of their vision.  Among other initiatives, MERGE ZA collaborated with TANK magazine on a London Fashion Week event highlighting SA creatives and facilitating collaborations with invigorating people in London.  Anees Petersen of SA brand Young & Lazy remarked, “I… found that the niche markets are way bigger in the UK so it allows for brands that cater to a certain market that are able to sustain themselves better than what we can here in SA.”  This is essential for ambitious designers drawing from the raw energy of a complex culture in their aesthetic expression.         

South Africa could become an ever more important centre for African fashion, helping to establish ways and means for this huge, vibrant continent.  As South Africa evolves, the fashion industry is watching and waiting.

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