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As the country celebrates 27 years of democracy on Freedom Day, we take a look at its rich and diverse fashion industry and the brands that have defined it over the years.

By innocent ndlovu

Apr 27, 2021

The 90s were a significant era in the history of South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, apartheid was abolished, and the country held its first democratic elections on 27 April 1994, which led to its first Black president, Nelson Mandela. And with that freedom came new opportunities. Miss World was held in the country in 1994, Elle magazine launched a local edition in 1996, and supermodel and philanthropist Naomi Campbell held a Versace for Africa Fashion Show in Aid of Nelson Mandela Children's Fund in 1998.

At the time, fashion was largely dominated by international brands and trends from Europe until South African Fashion Week was launched to develop a designer-led industry. Founded by Lucilla Booyzen after years of working as a model and producing fashion shows in both Europe and South Africa, South African Fashion Week launched with 17 designers in 1997, ushering in a new era for a country looking to redefine its identity. Before then, designers had largely worked and sold their garments from their studios or small boutiques. “There were a handful of designers in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town and they all had bespoke clients,” Boozyen tells Industrie Africa. 

Clive Rundle FW‘09 Photo: via @safashionweek

Loxion Kulca SS‘10. Photo via @safashionweek

Stoned Cherrie FW‘11. Photo: Courtesy of SA Fashion Week.

With 11 official languages and various tribes, there’s no single style that can purely define South African fashion, it’s a mix of references of cultural heritage driven by both modernity and ancient traditions. That first showcase at SA Fashion Week presented collections from designers such as Clive Rundle, David West, and Julian whose all-white collections reflected new beginnings of both the fashion industry and the political climate. The fashion here was defined by avant-garde designs, minimalist in construction, with clean lines and some references to local culture and realities like the patchwork found in Black miners’ clothes who mended their worn-out garments in various fabrics swatches.

Early designers such as Amanda Laird Cherry and Marianne Fassler were motivated by tribal influences and nature from animal prints to Zulu culture, and Shweshwe fabric, a dyed cotton textile with intricate geometric patterns. Usually worn by Black women throughout history, as maid uniforms, the Shweshwe fabric was given a new context in designer fashion as a luxurious textile.

MaXhosa by Laduma SS‘21. Photo: Courtesy of Maxhosa by Landuma. 

In the early 2000s, a transformation was taking place with womenswear label Stoned Cherrie founded by Khensani Nkosi and unisex label Loxion Kulca launched by Wandi Nzimande at the forefront. Showcasing Black people’s newfound freedom with everyday dressing inspired by work and daywear, these clothes were a reflection of the lives and aspirations of the Black community. Stoned Cherrie’s vibrant collections inspired by the golden era of Sophiatown, a once multicultural hub in Johannesburg destroyed during apartheid, influenced the tastes of both consumers and design talent that launched in the years to follow. Meanwhile, Loxion Kulca was influenced by the townships, with references to hip hop and influences from the 90s South African musical movement Kwaito. These designers were celebrating Black people and aimed to reconstruct identity and pride among the marginalized group, with their garments.

It’s also during this time that designers started fusing literal interpretations of local culture and heritage into clothing. Ladies’ frocks were crafted from wax print cloth, shirts were made from Shweshwe, while denim jeans were decorated with contrasting patches inspired by the traditional Zulu outfit Umblaselo, which is worn at celebratory events. Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters such as Steve Biko, appeared as iconography on skirts, shirts, and t-shirts reminding the country of its past while looking into the future. Zulu traditional hats known as Isicholo were presented as contemporary accessories and colorful beadwork was used as embellishments on both clothing and jewelry alike. MaXhosa by Laduma, whose garments feature in the Hollywood film Coming 2 America, has built a global luxury knitwear and home decor brand inspired by Xhosa beadwork patterns, symbolism, and colors. 

However, while other designers were looking into wax prints and ethnic dress, David Tlale and Thula Sindi were championing modern romanticism and luxurious clothing driven by the cosmopolitan tastes of the decade. This style was mirrored by dramatic gowns, feminine cuts, and sensual looks that appealed to affluent local and global tastes. Elsewhere, Roman Handt and De Mil were refreshing menswear with gender blurring designs of sculptural pieces exploring new shapes and forms in exciting and unusual fabrics such as high tech materials used in soundproofing and hybrid pieces of skirts and dresses for the former and elegant black lace with intricate flower motifs and cut-outs and flowing mesh gowns, layered and cut to perfection, subverting both gender and religion for the latter.

David Tlale SS‘21. Photo: Courtesy of Thebe Magugu

Thebe Magugu FW‘18 Photo: Courtesy of SA Fashion Week

Coutts Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Lukhanyo Mdingi

 Today, South Africa’s young designers are collectively telling their stories in new ways, often rejecting stereotypical ideas of what local fashion should look like. Their cross-cultural experiences, assured approach, and modern designs have been embraced globally and represent a new generation, eager to own and share their stories with the world. Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo are driven by political storytelling that delves into history while Lukhanyo Mdingi is motivated by conscious and timeless design, using exceptional fabrics like homegrown mohair. “On a global scale our designers are incredibly talented,” chief executive of PR firm Imprint Luxury and Fashion Revolution South Africa coordinator, Cyril Naicker, tells Industrie Africa. “Technology has changed and it's given [local] designers incredible opportunities to design stuff with unique things,” he continues. 

Other local designers redefining the ‘South African aesthetic’ include genderless label Rich Mnisi whose designs borrow from the vivid colors of his Vatsonga heritage and design duo MmusoMaxwell, with their refreshed tailoring for women, that drapes and wraps the body in panels and pleats. With the world unifying to amplify voices of minorities around the world, South Africa, with its level of talent, high-level craftsmanship, rich history, and the spotlight brought by designers such as Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo, the future of fashion looks bright. 

In the spirit of Freedom day, shop our South African labels.