South Africa’s Soweto Fashion Week (SFW) stayed true to its cause, showcasing up and coming designers from one of the country’s most eclectic suburbs.
Established in 2011 to give black designers a platform that was closer to home and independent of the bigger, more conventional events, SFW is now well recognized even beyond South Africa.
This year it also featured designers from Nigeria and Namibia.
Founder and former model, Stephen Manzini says Soweto embodies the experience of every young designer starting out and trying to make a name in a vivacious industry.
“Soweto is a place of struggle. It’s a brand on its own. The best way for us to do what we intending to do was to come to Soweto – Africa as a whole believes in Soweto,” he said.
Soweto, a township just outside Johannesburg was once a flashpoint of the fight against apartheid, which ended in 1994. It has grown into a mix of tidy suburbs to serve a growing black middle class.
It is that history that Manzini was hoping to tap into with SWF, although at first it took time to catch on.
“Well, it was challenging in the beginning, especially in Soweto because some people were thinking it’s a competition, some people were thinking it’s a beauty pageant and they’re like, ‘what going on, what’s happening?’. I mean our first show had like 10 people show up, you know. But now we reach almost 2,000 people a week. So it has grown, it has grown, even from the community – we are not urban but we are now attracting people from different areas,” he said.
Designers like 33-year-old Isaac Lekwene are the heart of SWF. The owner of ‘Tiller Clothes’ sold his car to buy a professional sewing machine and started his business four years ago.
Initially, he specialized in formal traditional wear for a few clients but as the business grew Tiller Clothes became a designer brand, gaining recognition through events like SWF.
“Starting Tiller Clothes, there was like a… because I was having passion to draw and to sketch things, to bring… I wanted to bring them to life, that’s how it started,” said Lekwene.
“They give us platform where we can showcase to buyers, we can showcase to new clients. It builds a brand. It builds our brand, because some people don’t know us, some people know us. We meet new people who can open up new doors for us. So, it’s a very great opportunity to showcase your stuff in Soweto Fashion Week, or your SA (South African) Fashion Week because it just helps you to get into another level,” he added.
Lekwene has also been invited to showcase at this year’s “J Summer Fashion Show” in Paris.
In the long run he wants to own his own clothes factory and hire 500 staff to work on different designs across Africa.
Meanwhile SWF tries to keep things fresh every year, incorporating a range for children.
“Just so refreshing, like the actual name says, #freshwear, it was just exciting seeing the kids on stage and the life that they bring on stage – it’s just exciting,” said Miss Soweto 2016, Nthabiseng Kgasi.
“I loved it because it was storytelling-ish, you know?” said designer, FCB.
South Africa’s fashion industry industry was worth more than 200 billion rand ($15 billion) at the end of 2014.
Johannesburg Fashion Week and Cape Town Fashion Week attract designers and investors from around the world and feature alongside events in Paris and London fashion weeks.