As new leadership seeks to satisfy growing pan-African audiences, local fashion publishing houses are diversifying their content and showcasing Black talent.

Innocent Ndlovu

Oct 15, 2021


Kim Kardashian featured on the Elle South Africa cover from March 2013. Photo: via @coversarchive

The South African fashion magazine industry has gone through many transformations since the country’s independence in 1994. Economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government resulted in limited international trade, and accelerated the domestic development of the country’s fashion and publishing industry. While political tensions resulted in a crucial lack of external fashion brands and publications entering the market, some early players like Cosmopolitan were introduced in the 1980s. It was Elle South Africa that became the first major international fashion title to launch under South Africa’s new democracy in 1996.

Under a new administration, the effects of limited access to education and lack of job opportunities caused by decades of racial inequality and segregation continued to affect people of color. Black people's consumption of magazines and the face of the publishing industry reflected this harsh reality. As Gisèle Wertheim Aymés, the launch publisher of Elle South Africa explains to Industrie Africa, “[The industry] was very white and either Eurocentric or Afrikaans. Titles that looked at the younger Black aspirant market did not exist [and] in those early years, the market for the consumption of magazines was predominantly white.” Though the stories, features, and fashion editorials were original, for many years, syndicated covers dominated these local editions for fear that featuring nonwhite cover stars would negatively affect sales. Particularly at a time when racial tensions were still rife throughout the country.

The end of apartheid and the political shifts that followed inaugurated new business opportunities and the arrival of additional international titles including GQ, Marie Claire, and Glamour. Many of these titles, some of which originated from France, Britain, and the US, had previously distanced themselves from operating during the apartheid regime, but arrived to partake in a more inclusive sector. 

Shifting Dynamics

The state established the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, 2003 to address the inequalities suffered under apartheid and to increase the participation of previously disadvantaged groups in the local economy. Developed in the hopes of increasing Black business ownership and promoting skill development, the BBBEE codes and mandates advocated for companies to offer investment opportunities to Black shareholders, offer employment, and support to small Black-owned businesses to bridge the wealth and skills gap. In the early 2000s, the rise of enfranchised Black creatives in the magazine industry represented a changing, more diverse landscape. Soon after in 2004, Elle hired its first Black Consulting Beauty Editor, Jacqui Mofokeng, and was the first international fashion title to do so.

The country's transition to independence contributed to a major cultural shift that influenced the local fashion industry and the consumption of magazines. “When we launched, our readership was 70% white and 30% Black,'' notes Aymés, "Within seven or eight years we were switching to 50/50 and after twelve years of publishing, consumption went 70% Black and 30% white.” This drastic change in consumer behavior drove magazines to broaden their fashion and beauty pages with content that reflected a new demographic empowered by growing buying power. 

The success of local and foreign magazines and the opening of global trade led to a burgeoning fashion community that, with the support of the country’s biggest fashion week platforms namely South African Fashion Week and African Fashion International, advanced the work of South African and pan-African labels beyond the continent. The top glossies presented opportunities for international brands to enter the market through advertising and collaborations. Furthermore, participation was fueled by the potential of a developing economy and the emergence of young, local design talent. To tap into this new market, luxury labels like Louis Vuitton and Gucci launched flagship stores in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The fast-fashion giants such as Zara and H&M quickly followed suit. 

“I don’t think the answer lies with international titles. I think the answer lies when we as an African continent embrace what we [have to offer].”

A New Era   

GQ and Glamour South Africa, two of the top remaining international fashion publications in the country, appointed their first Black chief editors Nkosiyati Khumalo and Asanda Sizani in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Both editors' tenures were groundbreaking. Sizani herself featured on the cover of her first issue as editor-in-chief alongside hip hop artist Nadia Nakai, and albino model Thando Hopa. This was the first time a female rapper had covered Glamour magazine. At GQ, Khumalo made strides by making TV personality Bonang Matheba the first woman to appear on a standalone cover. Both Khumalo and Sizani left the industry for opportunities further afield, making way for a new wave of talent at both publications. 

Under the leadership of current Conde Nast International South Africa CEO, Mbuso Khoza, who was first hired as acting CEO in 2018, the titles have undergone significant repositioning. This involved an accelerated digital media strategy, a decrease in publishing frequency to bi-monthly, and an emphasis on regionalized Pan-African content to appeal to audiences beyond South Africa. In addition, Glamour is experimenting with seasonal issues. For its March/April 2021 edition, they featured Nigerian music star Tiwa Savage on its cover. “As Glamour, we have had to evolve and innovate more and faster than we anticipated keeping up with the changing face of publishing,” says Nontando Mposo, editor-in-chief of Glamour who joined the title in 2019. In the same vein, GQ’s June/July 2021 cover starred Kenyan social media star Elsa Majimbo. “As Glamour, we have had to evolve and innovate more and faster than we anticipated keeping up with the changing face of publishing,” says Nontando Mposo, editor-in-chief of Glamour who joined the title in 2019. 

This new content strategy is reflective of evolving consumer tastes and the influence of digital media. “[...] the direction that makes sense now is us taking ownership of our stories and talents,” Mposo reveals, “Our readers want to be inspired by cover stars they can relate to, hence the shift for Glamour to homegrown cover stars and content.”  

Tiwa Savage on the Glamour South Africa cover from March 2021. Photo: via @glamour_sa

Sho Madjozi featured on the cover of Elle's first ever digital issue from November 2018. Photo: via @ellesouthafrica

Elsa Majimbo featured on the GQ South Africa cover from July/August 2021. Photo: via @gqsouthafrica

The Future   

Over the last few years magazines like Elle and Cosmopolitan have shut down and the start of the pandemic in 2020 forced the closure of more historic titles. According to Mposo, “It’s been a scary and a sad time for magazines [and] publishing,” she continues, “The plan [now] is to have a bigger footprint and engagement across the African continent.” With South Africa and the world opening up again Mposo is “looking forward to collaborating with more creatives” from across the continent.

Aymés believes that the future lies in developing more local publications tailored to each African country. “I don’t think the answer lies with international titles,” she says, “I think the answer lies when we as an African continent embrace what we [have to offer].” The conclusive results of this dissemination of regional content remain to be seen, but one thing is clear; South Africa’s publishing industry is, at long last, coming home.