Founder of Soweto Fashion Week, Stephen Manzini. Picture: Bhekikaya Mabaso.

Soweto Fashion Week (SFW), an initiative that started as a vision to help black designers showcase their work, has grown into a big platform for upcoming talent in the industry. Stephen Manzini, the man behind the idea, saw a wide-open opportunity while he was modelling during one of the fashion weeks in the country. 

“As a model, you are chosen by designers. If your designer is not chosen then you don’t have a job. This was when I saw a lot of good designers were not given an opportunity although they deserved to be on the platform. “I would find a lot of other demographics and other races getting more preferences and privileges than black people to showcase on such platforms. I looked around and realised that there was not much competition to force the doors open,” he said. 

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Manzini was determined to fulfill his vision of closing the gap in the market. It is common knowledge in the industry that in order to gain recognition and take a shot at making it big, one’s work has to be showcased. “Fashion Week is a platform where fashion designers can start their business,” Manzini said. 

“A lot of fashion designers today are big brands because they benefited from being part of a fashion week. “There’s no designer locally who becomes known without going through a fashion week.” 

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Like any other initiative, SFW never started as the big brand it has become. It was established in October 2011 in Kliptown, a place where many people had never heard about any fashion week. And it wasn’t all smooth sailing trying to do it alone with barely any assistance. 

“The brand has grown since our first show in Kliptown. It was a bit difficult because people in the community were still trying to figure out what fashion week was and what it did. Some were calling it a competition,” said Manzini. 

Model on ramp at the Soweto Fashion Week. Picture: Thobile Mazibuko

“When we first started, we had about 10 people showing up. It was quite horrific." 

But that didn’t deter him and he persisted in his attempts to bring his vision to life. Eventually he found several other people who shared his dream. “With the support that we got, we acquired heavy sponsors and that pushed us to move forward,” Manzini said. “From there, we’ve been growing and we’re now international, almost outgrowing Soweto Theatre,”he said. 

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SFW has now become the platform for established and up-and-coming designers to showcase their work and create opportunities for them to reach the big time. “Today, SFW is not just for Soweto designers but for the whole country and other African designers,” he said. 

Today, SFW is known to have helped a lot of new and established designers grow and show their talents. But it hasn’t stopped there. It also aims to grow African brands worldwide. “We are going to grow our brands internationally,” Manzini said. 

“This is the goal we’ve started working on. We are doing blueprints in Los Angeles and we’re going to do road trips and exhibitions.” He aims to become the first African brand to rule internationally. 

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However, one of the challenges facing the African beauty fashion industry is that, in spite of all its talent and potential, it’s not helping to grow the African economy. “In Africa, fashion is not making the money that it has the potential to make,” Manzini said. 

“Our fashion has great potential internationally. “Foreign labels come here and and adopt African prints and use them to their own advantage. “Africa has authentic designers, we have that edge and Africanism to sell to the world but the world is coming here, copying us because there’s no brand taking it out there to them. “If they do that, they don’t have the capacity to take it out in a way that needs to be taken out to the rest of the world,” he said.

Soweto Fashion Week is on until Sunday. More than 20 designers are showcasing their work.