Being a student and having to budget has never been my forte. My survival list runs in this order: clothing, social life and then food and toothpaste. However, buying clothes has become part of me and my friends’ lives because what we wear is part of our self-expression. Some of us feel the need to ‘dress to impress’ and be Instagram-ready (you never know which street style photographer might snap a shot for their latest blog post).
With an exciting fashion landscape like South Africa’s, wearing designs by local brands such as Rich Mnisi, Good Good Good and Tsotetsi KL is a dream. I look at the quality of clothing made by local designers and brands and think, “Wow, why are there not more people wearing this stuff?”
Numerous factors play a role in creating the perception that South African labels are overpriced. The convenience of retail stores like Zara at the V&A Waterfront and Sandton City, and the lack of public knowledge on designer brands. The cost of labour in the clothing industry is also important to local manufacturing. In comparison to India and China, where labour is exploited, South African labour is, on average, is more than double the per week rate in China, which is currently around R800.
In the past 15 years, jobs in the local clothing industry have decreased from 200 000 to 19 000. Many clothing manufacturers, mainly in the KwaZulu-Natal, have been forced to shut down by the National Bargaining Council (the organisation that oversees the clothing and manufacturing industry) due to labour exploitation. More recently, a factory was closed due to forced labour and human trafficking.
Typically, brands like H&M tend to do well because ethics aside, their staple clothing is cheaper and they have the capital to run massive marketing campaigns and lease stores in prime shopping malls. A recent article shows that in the first quarter of this year, H&M’s sales increased 39% to the detriment of local retailers. So, if stores like Mr Price and Woolworths are taking a knocking, imagine the effects on local designers.
Of course, there is the drawcard that unlike knitwear bought at Zara, local fashion is unique and exclusive but how many of our designers have funding to advertise their label on huge billboards to increase awareness?
Alexandra Blank, a Cape Town based designer and lecturer of mine at the Design Academy of Fashion, tells me that the awareness of South African fashion is slowly growing due to social media, organisations such as Fashion Revolution and local designers producing work of an international standard. “I believe that good design should be recognised for what is it, no matter where it comes from,” she says.
It’s one thing acknowledging good design and another being able to wear it. When we buy local brands, we boost the South African economy and actively make ethical fashion choices – buying local is also more sustainable because we’re decreasing shipping which is better for the environment.
As a fashion student, this has been a topic of discussion throughout my studies. If some people can afford to shop at international stores such as Zara, Topshop and Road then maybe they could afford local designers. For example, a Thebe Magugu coat costs R1 800, a classic trench coat from Topshop costs R2 600 and a velveteen puffer from Country Road is R2 300.
Most of us complain about the price of local goods and then we contradict ourselves by heading out to purchase a jacket from a bulk supplying international store for double the price and half the quality because we want to be flashy with the label.
Let’s be flashy with our local labels and let everyone know how talented our young South African designers are. Plus, the bonus is that not every Tom, Dick and influencer will have the same army style jacket as you. Joe Soap might have one similar but he’ll only wear it Wednesdays.