The difficulty of sustaining a fashion label in South Africa

So, to start the conversation, I asked some member s of our local fashion industry the question alluded to in the title of this piece, “what makes long-term sustainability of a fashion label in our country so difficult?”. This is what I got…

This question couldn’t have come at a better time — [personally] it’s a question I ask myself quite often. I [often think the difficulty in sustaining] a fashion business [is because we want our fashion businesses to look the way the international [counterparts do] or like their past fashion businesses have looked. But the truth is, if you put your back into the business that’s right for you, you won’t struggle as much as you would think. This is a large question that people have had whole seminars over but I do think the South African fashion world is getting there, especially when looking at businesses like Fashion agent and Rich Mnisi you can tell it’s possible. We just need to find our place and get good at it.

Nao Serati

In the past 20 – 25 years, we have also seen a decline in local textile production, with Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal industrious textile mills shutting down. This, along with many other facts challenging the state of our local fashion market, push an already high bar to new heights. Sustaining a fashion brand in South Africa is due to a number of various reasons. As one of the most unequal societies in the world — the opportunities of access into “better worlds” are few and far between if present at all for most. This contributes to most people not being able to sustain their own lives, let alone a fashion business. The textile industry has been around for decades but is crumbling due to the nature of how it has operated under capitalism — forging a textile production system that didn’t throughly consider the sustainability of industry systems, especially with the move to conscious production. Fabric stores stock what they can and our country has no culture of recycling or tracking its carbon footprint effectively. The designers behind South Africa’s celebrated clothing brands, share their insight into what it takes to sustain a fashion brand in the country. The categories that are typically associated with streetwear (graphic tees, hoodies, caps) are what is keeping some brands afloat during a period that generally feels like a slumped season in local fashion. However, with the ever intersecting points of high fashion and streetwear, brands like Wanda Lephoto, have been quietly dropping graphic tees constantly over the past couple of months. The result is interesting, considering that the brand itself hasn’t officially dropped a full length project in over a couple of months but for Wanda, this is part of the brands plan to play the long game. Whilst some brands struggle to stay open — others such as Rich Mnisi and Happyville are at the forefront of “drop” culture. “Drop” culture is whereby popular streetwear products can only be purchased directly from a brand through the “drop” model; customers are rallied to be the first online or in-stores to secure the product that are released at a particular place and time. The “drop” model works for brands as a supply and demand tactic; creating hype around a brand or particular product in anticipation of the release.

This tactic works better for brands that are built on a cult-like following, however, recent results have shown that executing a “drop” wrong and selling out too quick, can also work to negatively impact a once thriving brand. Usually when the demand surpasses the supply that’s when a problem arises, a lot of brands go under because they are unable to produce the same quality of products at a quicker rate. This may be due to facts of resources and that support capital in South Africa is little to none. This experience counts for a lot, in a field which was once saturated with streetwear brands; once sighting emblazoned prints and printed lettering that carried ironic slogans and whimsical graphic left, right and centre. The facts still remains that in a country that is part of the Global South — economic vulnerability still plagues small to medium businesses. Furthermore, looking at how the supply and demand chain is set-up in South Africa — once brands can’t meet the demands, they are quickly pushed out by Counterfeiters. That’s what happened a couple of years back with trendy streetwear brands like Ama Kip Kip and Galxboy respectively. Other factors such as quality, design, narrative design and authenticity weigh in and tip the scales. What I don’t understand is how the counterfeiting market can push out the original brands? Is it not a first rate idea to try buy back the merchandise and redistribute it themselves? I had a chat with Lebo Serame to get a difference perspective. Lebo Serame is the founder and Creative director of Happyville, street luxury brand, one best described as “Ghetto Fabulous”.

Do you think sustaining a fashion brand in South Africa is difficult, and if so how so?

Ahhh this is very… It’s one I can’t really answer from my own personal experience, because I’ve only been in the business for 3 years now and it’s still very young, very early days. But for me right now — I mean I’ve been here for 3 years and so far it’s still fine.

However, from my observation [of other brands], I’ve seen the likes of your Ama Kip Kip, Head Huncho, Galxboy, Loxion Kulture, you know, the Stone Cherry’s disintegrate — these people/brands we looked up to and aspired to be like and the fact that some of them they are none existent today, should be of concern. They were the “Big It” people. Now the question of what lead to their down fall should be a case study. Ultimately, from my observations sustaining a fashion label in this country is particularly difficult because we don’t have a post-apartheid fashion brand, infrastructure or systems to be the blueprint. As a new brand, Happyville is learning from the old brand’s past mistakes.

What do you think local fashion brands can do to survive — better yet, to thrive in this business?

Personally I’ve been studying what led to the demise of other local brands—your Loxion Kultures—they had a problem with counterfeiting, and that really fucked them up. Counterfeiting is a big issue that leads to the downfall of other brands. With Galxboy—from the little research I’ve done—they had internal conflicts between their investors and their founders and it’s similar to what happened to Stone Cherry. If I’m not mistaken, they started getting retailed by Foschini and it swallowed them up. I personally, don’t feel like the partnership was compatible; Stone Cherry was too [far out] for them. So, I think for us the new cats are who we need to study; what the post apartheid, [post-90’s – early 2000s] brands Arte doing, and learn from their victories and mistakes. Younger brands like MaXhosa by Laduma and Bathu, which are doing well. Ultimately, we need to have more discussions about how to better the industry. [A network] of those who were in the game and what they could teach us, and which lessons they are willing to share, similarly like record labels talk about record deals. We should be able to speak about the type of retail deals and business deals they got and how they moved with ‘em. The take away point is that it is difficult for brands to stay afloat because most of the time some brands have to import good textiles as the local textile industry isn’t as glorious as it was years before. The producers (fashion brands) [often] have to outsource both their machinery and labour, and even the physical space to handle the production. So when you don’t own the tools, all of these little cost add up as all these tools are necessary for production. So what makes it difficult is by the time the production of the clothing is complete, you then have to pay for services and materials like a seamstress, fabric, printing, etc and the only way to fit the bill is to price your products at a certain rate. This high pricing because of production costs often times mean that consumers can’t afford it or they don’t really understand the reason behind those specific price points. I think it’s very difficult to have a brand and not be the sole proprietor or own your own brand entirely. This is subject to change as the industry grows but for now, I think that there’s a long way to go and carrying on with these types of conversations not only identify the problems but hopefully also help us find more sustainable suctions going forward.

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