Fashion Capital: How Johannesburg Became the Center of South African Fashion

Words by The Folklore Team

Kicking off today, the 25th edition of the South African Fashion Week takes place at the Mall of Africa in Johannesburg. The three-day event, which runs from 28-30 April, will showcase the SS22 collections of 20 designers to the media, buyers and the public.

For a quarter of a century, SAFW has been a key event on the African fashion calendar for both established and emerging designers. It has acted not only as a means to showcase new collections but as a springboard for homegrown talents into the wider business of fashion.

The luxury goods market on the African fashion industry has been rapidly growing over the years, with a lot of potential yet to be realized. One of the key spaces to watch is South Africa, which is the largest luxury market on the continent, with an estimated worth of $133m. In particular, South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg has been a major factor in the growth of the country’s luxury fashion scene and its rising profile on the international stage.

Once regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Johannesburg has not always been the creative hotspot that it is today. The city has undergone a major transformation in recent years, with new loft buildings, boutiques and office developments intermingling with the historic structures and vibrant culture of its inhabitants. You can now find a coffee shop on every corner and the sides of most buildings covered with art by local artists. For fashion lovers, there are several high-concept boutiques filled with homegrown brands you won’t find anywhere else in the world, making it as fashionable a stomping ground as Brooklyn.

“The city has so much diversity and energy because of the many people coming from all parts of the country to hustle and to make a living there – it’s a city that embodies the heartbeat of culture in South Africa,” says Vanessa Maseko, Senior Account Manager for Brands at The Folklore.

A representation of this energy can be seen in the recent Netflix series Young, Famous & African, the first African reality show on the streaming platform, chronicling the lives of entertainers and entrepreneurs in Johannesburg. The show is set in Johannesburg’s Sandton district, which is often referred to as the “richest square mile in Africa”, thanks to its location as the financial hub of the city. While the glamour and flashy cars, clothes and jewelry are all similar to what you would find on any other reality series in the west, Young, Famous & African displays the beautiful scenery, creativity, bold fashion and energy that are quintessentially African.

“Not only has this creative hotspot for trends contributed to increasing the numbers of fashion consumers, it has also established some of the best brands including Vivers,” Maseko says. Other Johannesburg-based fashion designers have earned global recognition, too. Thebe Magugu won the LVMH Prize for emerging talent in 2019, the first African designer to be awarded the prize while the design duo behind MmusoMaxwell recently won the 2022 International Woolmark Prize’s Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, and designer Rich Mnisi released a capsule collection in collaboration with Adidas earlier this year.

The international spotlight has brought luxury designers from the continent to the forefront, feeding into the rising demand for African fashion. This has also exposed some of the obstacles and limitations that the designers face when it comes to production, logistics or access to wholesale partners. African manufacturing processes are geared towards quotidian products instead of luxury fashion. Many designers are forced to be resourceful, such as splitting their production between multiple factories depending on their specialty, or importing fabrics so that they are able to create full collections.

These limitations have evolved the role of industry organizations, such as African fashion weeks, into being means of discovery and marketing support for African designers. “African consumers have demonstrated the same desire and love for fashion as elsewhere in the world – the only difference is accessibility,” director of South African Fashion Week Lucilla Booyzen has said. For 25 years, Booyzen and her team have produced SA Fashion Week – the oldest in Africa – contributing to the development of South Africa’s fashion landscape in the process, from discovering emerging designers through its New Talent Search competition to the nurturing young designers and introducing them to clients and partners.

For more than two decades, South African Fashion Week has been the stage for the debut of vibrant, bold and often eccentric collections of talented South African designers, and for the third consecutive year, that stage will be once again be hosted at the Crystal Court in Johannesburg’s Mall of Africa, where it continues to build on the foundation it has established as a mainstay of the South African fashion industry.

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