Soweto gets its first fashion week

2012-05-25 12:12
Donna Bryson

Johannesburg - Struggling but deserving designers will get a chance to show work inspired by the creativity and history of South Africa's most famous township in Soweto's first fashion week opening on Thursday.

The township on Johannesburg's southwestern edge was the natural place for a show for new designers, said 23-year-old entrepreneur and Soweto Fashion Week organiser Stephen Manzini.

"You walk around Soweto, you see creativity everywhere," Manzini said.

Manzini didn't ask designers to show extensive collections or charge them take part, unlike the country's more established fashion weeks. Fashion blogger Mahlatse James says this gives a chance to designers who have not yet made a name to have a chance to show their work to boutique owners and potential investors.

"Creatives from Soweto do need their own platform," James said. "If the other fashion platforms cannot afford them that, they have to create their own."

Quirky sense of style

Manzini acknowledges Soweto Fashion Week is an ambitious title for his three-day showcase of 16 designers. Rehearsals were held in the parking lot and garden of a modest apartment borrowed from a tailor friend, in a northern Johannesburg neighbourhood.

"We refused to be stopped because we don't have funding," said Manzini, who raised R60 000 from churches, business people and other sponsors for the event. His mother, a nurse, tapped her contacts and acted as chairwoman of the event, and is someone off whom he could bounce ideas, Manzini said.

Manzini is confident that in coming years, the event will grow to a full week and give many more designers an opportunity. He hopes to start his own business distributing designs that will first take the catwalk this week.

Soweto has long been known for its quirky sense of style, with designers splashing bright colours and urban sensibilities on everything from the latest silhouettes on European runways to reworkings of the dapper suits Nelson Mandela wore when he lived in the township in the 1940s. 

'Young and fresh'

The designers in Manzini's shows aren't as recognisable as Smarteez. But the strikingly modern Soweto Hotel, one of Manzini's sponsors, has given them a classy stage with an evocative history. The hotel where the shows will be staged sits on the square where, in 1955, South Africans of all races gathered to adopt the Freedom Charter, which proclaims: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white." Freedom Square is now a national monument.

For 29-year-old designer Tebogo Lehlabi, Soweto is "liberation. It's freedom."

Lehlabi has never before participated in a fashion week. She said she had not been confident enough in the past to seek such a showcase, but now hopes that boutique owners will see her designs in Soweto and seek her out.

"It's a great opportunity. It's a long time coming. There's a lot of talent that's going on in the townships," said Lehlabi, who comes from another Johannesburg township, Alexandra.

"Soweto is coming along, it's coming into its own" along with the rest of South Africa, Lehlabi said. "We're an emerging identity. So, anything goes. It's a young and fresh identity."

She expresses her own identity in recycled materials and bits and pieces she finds at supermarkets and hardware stores. She dyes her clothing to washed out blues and grays that she says suggest Johannesburg's smog and "that bleached look that you sometimes get just before it rains".