So, where is the world’s fashion capital?

By Sandiso Ngubane Time of article published Feb 27, 2014

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Johannesburg - Champagne sipping, constant air kissing, endless red-carpet glamour and camera clicking… As usual, there will be no shortage of this when Johannesburg hosts the first of South Africa’s many annual fashion week events next month. A few weeks later, SA Fashion Week’s winter collections’ showcase will take place in the city and again host a series of shows later in the year for the winter fashion season.

With the exception of last year, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week-Africa has been hosted in the City of Gold since its inception in 2009, bringing together some of the continent’s best-known designers under one roof. The city is home to some of the country’s most prominent designers, including David Tlale, Suzaan Heyns, Marianne Fassler, Thula Sindi, Clive Rundle and many more. But does all of this mean much?

From these facts alone – with the amount of fashion industry activity that takes place – one would assume that Johannesburg is the country’s fashion capital. This is not the case, according to the Digital Language Monitor.

The Language Monitor releases a yearly list of the world’s fashion capitals. This year it put New York at the top, with London dropping to second place. Johannesburg, which last year ranked 18th, this year dropped significantly to 37th. Cape Town on the other hand, rose 27 places to 27th position. The cities are the only two on the African continent to make it on the list, despite Lagos, Nigeria’s well-publicised attempt at being seen as the continent’s fashion capital. In hindsight, according to this body, Cape Town is the hub of the African continent’s fashion industry.

There could be several reasons for this. Cape Town Fashion Council (CTFC) chief executive Bryan Ramkilawan says their organisation, an industry body that represents designers and other industry practitioners, could perhaps be seen as a sign of a more organised Cape Town industry. But he says the CTFC is not just for Cape Town: “Our key objective is to grow the industry in the country, not just Cape Town.”

According to Ramkilawan, the more than 1 000 members of the organisation are spread out across the country. Cape Town is simply the base from where the body does its work. Perhaps this alone has its benefits for Cape Town.

“Cape Town has a high volume of creative people living in the city. These are people outside of fashion, people who are in other areas of design.”

The Language Monitor compiles its list by scouring traditional and social media sources throughout the year. This includes reputable news media publications, magazines, blogs and even Twitter, to see what conversations people are having about fashion. The mention of a particular city in the fashion context is what determines how highly the city ranks. In essence, the more people have to say about New York and its fashion industry and style in general, the more New York rises up the ranks.

This may seem like a trivial way of looking at things, but if a simple explanation can be given as to why “Top Global Fashion Capital” is an important title, the Financial Times’s respected fashion critic Vanessa Friedman states simply on her blog Material World that “part of it is perception, of course, fashion people like to be where fashion is”. Friedman also points out that a lot of it also has to do with municipal promotion, which may explain why the city of Tshwane sought to take Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Africa away from Johannesburg and succeeded in doing so last year. Cities such as New York have been successful in using the multi-billion-dollar-a-year fashion industry to draw tourists. In this case, it’s not just about who is making the loudest noise or who wears what to what events. It’s also about industry growth and job creation.

Cape Town holds this year’s title of World Design Capital and even though the city is home to a single fashion week event a year, it is also home to the Design Indaba, which features a strong fashion element. Several of the country’s top designers and labels – Gavin Rajah, Kluk CGDT and Stefania Morland – are based here and they showcase their work at the summer collections that take place in the city, usually during the third quarter of the year. Many of the country’s top fashion magazines and more specifically, their fashion editors are based in Cape Town.

Last year, ELLE magazine moved its yearly “Rising Star” design talent showcase from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Previous prominent winners of the contest include David Tlale, Tiaan Nagel and Anisa Mpungwe of Loin Cloth & Ashes. All three are based in Johannesburg, but over the years, the majority of finalists and winners have often come out of Cape Town or at least the Western Cape.

In spite of this, Ramkilawan insists that we should not seek to divide the national fashion industry by city: “It’s very subjective how these things are compiled. At the end of the day, whether it’s Johannesburg or Cape Town that is finding success, we need to look at it as the country’s success. It’s growth for the industry.”

While she agrees with this view, Johannesburg-based buyer and boutique owner Felicity Spies says her city is without a doubt the real fashion capital of South Africa.

“It is certainly the business capital of South Africa and this is reflected in the fashion industry just like anywhere else. “There is something in the Joburg water that makes people fight harder. It’s a demanding environment where how successful you are really counts. Building a fashion label is incredibly tough and I believe the Joburg culture is largely responsible for the flourishing of young talent we are currently experiencing.”

The buyer, who stocks Johannesburg and Cape Town-based brands at EGALITY in Parkhurst, also points to the Johannesburg consumer as another indicator of how much the city loves fashion.

“They are daring, keen to brave the latest trends, passionate about dressing-up and dressing well. Above all, the Joburg customer is willing to invest in new local designers, styling them side by side with the best international brands.”

Designer Malcolm Klûk, one half of the KLûK CGDT duo, agrees with the sentiment: “There are more designers in Johannesburg that are ready-to-wear-focused and more evening-focused designers in Cape Town. I do believe the press is predominantly in Cape Town and possibly many of the events that warrant mentions are here. People like to party and holiday in Cape Town, but definitely, the spending power is in the economic hub of Johannesburg.”

How, then, did the Digital Language Monitor end up with Cape Town trumping Johannesburg?

“Surely Joburg has the worst PR,” says Spies. “Its such a great place to live and work in, but it does take a while to get to know the old girl. Cape Town, on the other hand, has the mountain, the sea, the models and the magazines. It’s increasingly the setting of multi-million-dollar movies and is the current Design Capital of the World.”

“We think the figures are probably quite skewed,” Klûk says. “It’s great to know that Cape Town has achieved this status, particularly because our design office is there, but as designers, we definitely have to think national and even continental to keep up with buying trends.

“We also believe Nigerian designers are strong contenders, their fashion aesthetic is more international than ours.” - Sunday Independent

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