Challenges Facing South African Designers
When the South African industry does well, it does exceptionally. With a thriving textile industry, job creation and skills development are at the forefront. But when it’s on a down-turn, it’s a mess. Before you hear the good regarding the textile industry in South Africa, you will hear about China and you will hear about cheaper imports.
Labour laws and cheap imports
Labour isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the South African textile industry. According to the Industrial Development Corporation, the industry was in 2013, responsible for 14% of jobs in the manufacturing sector and was the second largest source of tax revenue. “The textiles, clothing and footwear industry is the most cost-effective way of creating jobs,” say IDC experts.
While our laws make the textile industry (and many other industries) operate well, they can be a drawback. What makes most imports cheap is usually the labour. The fact that not every country has to adhere to strict laws that South African producers do, makes the means of production uneven in a way that puts South African textile producers – though ethical – at a disadvantage. Perhaps government legislature needs to make it illegal and a fineable offense to import from producers that don’t have good labour practices.
If you want your brand to be known for quality and craftsmanship, the way to go will cost much more than the ordinary textile production process costs. However, if you are still an unknown designer, and your brand is creating detailed great work, it could be hard to recover the production cost. In fact, while building your brand and reputation, your prices – which would be a reflection of the craftsmanship that goes into your products – could be seen as too much because the brand is still unknown.
Design as status symbol
For those designers working in the bespoke and luxury part of the clothing and textiles industry, the competition has had decades of reputation and prestige. While young South African fashion houses are working to build their reputations and desirability, the consumer is more interested in getting the shoes with the red soles, the big logo handbags and trench coats. Until buying locally-produced is a bigger status symbol than the opulence implied by a logo or colour of a sole, this is unlikely to change. This one is up to you, Afropolitans.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are young designers working and making a mark on the clothing and textiles industry.
South African designer to watch
Nkuli Mlangeni of The Ninevites (Rugs)
Mlangeni grew up in Kagiso and currently splits her time between Kagiso, Cape Town and the rest of the world. While, under the collective The Ninevites, Mlangeni does other design work such as t-shirts and tote bags, it’s her handwoven and naturally dyed rugs that have recently captured national attention.