DECEMBER 2014 – Anyone who has watched Hollywood’s screen queens glide down the red carpet at the Oscars, or rubbed shoulders with fashionistas at premier horseracing events, will know that a large part of fashion’s global appeal is in its enormous entertainment value. Certainly, when Kate Middleton arrived at Westminster Abbey in April 2011, most of the more than two billion TV viewers were waiting more for the unveiling of her Sarah Burton-designed dress than for the ceremony in which she would wed the future King of England.
No one knows the spectator appeal of fashion better than the creators of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, New York’s largest media event and the first stop on an international fashion circuit that provides an unparalleled level of brand exposure and the ultimate opportunity for designers to connect with a global audience.
When the first New York Fashion Week was staged in 1943, it’s primary aim was to focus media attention on American rather than French fashion. With World War II at its height and Paris fashion shows cancelled, American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert saw an opportunity to showcase US designers, who were largely ignored in favour of their French counterparts. She organised an event she called ‘Press Week’ and invited journalists to travel to New York instead. It was a huge success, and saw fashion publications such as Vogue (normally filled only with French designs) feature more American innovations. Over the years, the event went from strength to strength. Shows were held in hotels and warehouses throughout the city until, in 1994, they moved to the famous white tents of Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, where they remained until 2010, when they relocated to the Lincoln Center.
Today, twice a year, the world’s fashion luminaries descend upon New York for an eight-day, eight-night, four-runway event. Since 2007, Mercedes-Benz has been the title sponsor, finding a fit for its philosophy that standards are set by those who innovate and show leadership in their respective fields. The event has since grown to encompass the fashion capitals of Milan, London and Paris, as well as numerous other centres across the world, including in South Africa – with more than 30 fashion weeks currently sponsored by Mercedes-Benz.
The South African incarnation of the event, owned and hosted by African Fashion International (AFI), showcases not only top, influential designers but also emerging talent, and creates a regional and global platform for local brands to take their businesses to the next level.
AFI founder and Executive Chairperson, Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe says she was motivated to promote local designers when she realised what an important role the fashion and clothing industries can play in supporting and developing small businesses within South Africa. She believes ‘it is only a matter of time before we have South African designers exporting to big fashion houses and retailers overseas: their unique designs set them apart and make them stand out.’
Dr Moloi-Motsepe’s sentiments are shared by the designers who clamber for a spot on the runway at the influential Johannesburg and Cape Town events, as well as at Mercedes- Benz Fashion Week Africa, a trans-seasonal show held every October that provides a platform for premier African and heritage designers to present their fashion businesses to global markets.
Says award-winning designer Stefania Morland, who recently presented at AFI’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Cape Town, ‘South Africa’s fashion industry is extremely diverse, every Fashion Week sees a whole new range of up-and-coming designers.’
Malcolm Klûk and Christiaan Gabriel du Toit of KLûK CGDT, a South African fashion success story with a burgeoning international clientele, say South African fashion has evolved in the 13 years they have been a brand. ‘We love what comes from home, and know we still have a long way to go. We love AFI for the market they see African fashion addressing. We as Africans have our own pressures and challenges that are different to the international model and this industry should be channelled accordingly.’
‘South African fashion is in such an exciting period with an industry that is soaring and talent that is undoubtedly world-class,’ says Capetonian Ruald Rheeder, who had his reputation as a fashion heavyweight cemented by showing at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. With retail growth up, he believes the local market is finally embracing 100-percent South African design. ‘It is remarkable to see how far we have come as a country and the immense gap fashion has filled in South Africa. South African designers are headlining international catwalks and product lines are sold internationally. People are starting to turn to South Africa for fashion direction and I am positive that South African fashion will achieve global status in the next few years. Naturally, this is vital to the success of a growing fashion economy.’
Marianne Fassler, South Africa’s first lady of fashion and a driving force in the local industry, is also passionate about the future of South African fashion. With her eye for African culture and history, Fassler’s whimsically creative designs exude a unique sense of Africa and are a hot favourite among both local and international consumers. Her Winter 2014 Collection, for instance, explores the graphic element in African ornamentation. Fassler is a firm believer in sustainable design and works specifically with women who are single breadwinners in her efforts to keep growing the sector. ‘South Africa is a great source of inspiration for me,’ she says. ‘My patriotism and love of my country is reflected in everything that I do. I even use only South African music in my shows and have done so from the very start.’
Visionary design, then, is what South African fashion is all about. Both Fassler and Dr Moloi-Motsepe confirm this. Says the latter: ‘Fashion can be faddish or fashion can be forever. When fashion is forever, it’s known by sophisticated construction, elegant execution and a forward-thinking timelessness.’
It’s hardly surprising that these are also qualities that define Mercedes-Benz. Indeed, this luxury brand isn’t merely the product of its engineers, it’s the product of its fashion designers and their experiments with silk, cashmere, banana wood and other exotic materials. And it’s for this reason the German car maker has become inexorably tied to couture. According to the company’s fashion manifesto: ‘Great designers and great automakers alike know that innovation isn’t simply a matter of coming up with the latest gimmick, nor is leadership simply a matter of heading in a given direction. True innovation has immediate impact and lasting value; true leadership opens minds to possibilities, and one finds just as much on a Mercedes-Benz showroom floor as one does on a Mercedes- Benz Fashion Week runway.’