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{Time Travel} Out of the Closet: Lindiwe Mazibuko

7 Mar
LindiweM_Necklace_bed MAIN.jpg

Lindiwe Mazibuko has a lot to carry on her shoulders: at only 32, she is the youngest black woman leader in the Democratic Alliance, the fourth youngest Parliamentarian, a strong voice of the opposition, an active politician and a woman who is frequently attacked for ‘lacking authenticity’ or for being ‘just a kid’. She opens her closet to Daily Maverick’s EMILIE GAMBADE, revealing her considerable style and panache.

“I am 32 years old and it is very unusual to have a 32 year-old female politician in leadership in politics; people are already thrown by that. There is no point in trying to pretend that I am someone else and use camouflage to hide that aspect of [myself] that I should be celebrating; it should be what makes my offer or what it is that I have to say more compelling.” 

Lindiwe Mazibuko’s political statement is everything but a concealed one. The young Parliamentary Leader has a lot to offer: she is the first black leader of the DA in Parliament; an intelligent, articulate and rather thick-skinned woman.

emilie 289

Photo: Putting her statement red lipstick in her bathroom. (Kate Stegeman)

In past, she has been condemned by her detractors for shying away from the race issue, and called a “coconut” by Blade Nzimande for not being “black enough”. Shadow Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Masizole Mnqasela, blamed her for not having the right resonance with the black population of South Africa while Jackson Mthembu labelled her “naïve” and told her to “get a life”. Then Deputy Minister of Public Works, Jeremy Cronin, gave a speech in Parliament in which he unpacked the reasons why she wears her hair the way she does, as if it mattered, politically speaking.

The least one can say is that she gets people talking.

emilie 291

Photo: On the balcony of her Cape Town flat, wearing a blue T-shirt and assorted pleated skirt, both from Country Road and purple jacket from Habits. (Kate Stegeman)

Despite the aggressive criticisms and the gibes, she doesn’t bend. Rather, she takes her role seriously, sleeves rolled up, eloquence sharpened.

When it comes to power dressing, wearing clothes that back up her political responsibilities and add to her respectability, Mazibuko’s choices are bold and beautiful; she dresses the way she marches through politics, doubts and hesitations draped in a colourful poise. Perhaps the best, albeit harsh, way to describe it is that her wardrobe is an elegant ‘screw you’ to the usual display of black, green, yellow and to the common argument that herAfricanness is disputable.

Lindiwe Mazibuko is an African; born in Swaziland, she speaks isiZulu and French, grew up in the black township of Umlazi in KZN, attended a Catholic boarding school and holds a BA in French, Classics, Media & Writing and a BA Honours in Political Communication from the University of Cape Town. She was only twelve years old when she discovered London’s Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe, and from her walk down luxury lane, she remembers, “I thought, ‘This is everything I have been raised for, this is where I belong.’” Time has proven her wrong: she moved up into the political ring and Selfridges may relax; she didn’t lose her hunger for great style.

emilie 343

Photo: On the floor of her apartment; on her lap, pink cropped-jacket with black parrots from Monsoon; around her from the left, black and white baroque skirt with lace from Primark, tulle dress from Kluk CGDT, cropped top in black mesh from Stefania Morland, red jacket from Woolworths. (Kate Stegeman)

Her wardrobe represents her rather rich personality, a modern mix of influences rooted in her South African upbringing. She is, after all, a 21stCentury African, cosmopolitan and experimental woman, much more than a standard-bearer for one type of proudly South African blackness.

She doesn’t wear “twinsets and heels, (but) things that are comfortable and flattering, and colours that pop.” Her closet is a feminine trove: a baroque skirt with embossed flowers from Primark, a cropped-jacket in baby pink and printed black parrots from Monsoon, a clutch on appro from local designer Missibaba, (the brand lent it to her for a period of time) a pair of glittery gold heels, pieces from Zara, Trenery, Kluk CGDT or Stefania Morland.

emilie blackclutch 308

Photo: Clutch bag from Possum Missibaba (Kate Stegeman)

On the day of the interview, she is dressed head-to-toe in navy blue, T-Shirt, pleated skirt and plastic sandals from Country Road, a textbook sample of colour blocking. Is she symbolic of our local youth? Maybe not. The South African youth is still seeking its identity; it even once had a Malema’s Prada-Breitling combo as a role model. 

But for many the devil wears DA palatinate blue, and when Mazibuko weaved a fringe to her hair last year, her authenticity was suddenly questioned. “I never hid the fact that I was weaving my hair; I’m not one of those women who claim: ‘I’m a Mother of Africa, I must wear my hair natural’; I don’t think my hair is a political statement. I think hair is something you must have fun with.”

emilie 342

Photo: Purple jacket from Habits; red jacket from Woolworths; cropped top in black mesh  rom Stefania Morland (Kate Stegeman)

Her hair did become a subject of a political skirmish, when IFP’s Koos van der Merwe disturbed her speech to ask “on a point of order”: “Before the member continues, could she just explain to the House what she has done to her hair?” Mazibuko thought it was quite inappropriate, that there was a place and time for such comment and it was definitely out of the parliamentarian arena: “I also thought it was sexist; Mr van der Merwe thought he was lightening the mood, he didn’t actually realise he was doing something disruptive. He thought it would be fun to make a joke about my hair in a middle of a speech. There was very much this kind of patriarchal sense that I wouldn’t mind because I’m just a kid; it was incredibly disrespectful.” She brushed the remark off replying that she would gladly share the “secrets of her hairdo with him should he have any hair.” Mazibuko 1, van der Merwe 0.

Her razor-sharpness doesn’t mean she has no doubts or bottomless confidence. For style advice and inspiration, she turns to her “fashion friend,” freelance fashion consultant and blogger, Robyn Cooke. “It’s like having a therapist, she’s got a very good way of encouraging me not to go overboard, also not to go underboard, to find the middle ground… (Even if) there is no middle ground; I just get to be myself. She’s there to tweak my instincts a little bit.”

emilie 302

Photo: Showing her cream tulle dress with black edges from Kluk CGDT (Kate Stegeman)

For the State of the Nation Address, Mazibuko is going to wear black “with some magic to it,” an outfit she describes as “fun but in a demure way.” She chose a silk skirt from Thula Sindi, with a wide waist sitting all the way down her rib cage, and a bow at the back; on top, a cropped jacket in black mesh, embellished with flowers and subtle beads, worn over a corset. The competition is usually fierce on the red carpet, as MPs model their special attires, and the 2012 line-up was, if anything, carnivalesque. Looking at last year’s outfits, polychromatic was the new black and elegance was definitely yesterday.  

emilie 308

Photo: Converse takkies in DA blue and glitter gold heels she will wear for the State of the Nation Address (Kate Stegeman)

“We live politics every single day; but people receive us only in small snatches; all they see is pictures of us in the paper and what you see on this picture, what you wear, says a whole lot about who you are. In that sense, the way politicians dress is hugely influential and shows part of who they are and what their personality is. If you use it well and if you are genuine about it, it can be a way of showing your inner landscape to people without having to talk to them.” 

Her outfits tell stories of colours, experiments and a soft, distinctly feminine confidence; they also speak about a woman who embraces the world’s many influences while fighting fiercely for her very own. DM

Main photo: Lindiwe Mazibuko in her bedroom, trying on a collar necklace piece. (Kate Stegeman)

Story first published in the Daily Maverick 

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-02-14-out-of-the-closet-lindiwe-mazibuko/

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{Time Travel} Out of the Closet: Lindiwe Mazibuko

7 Mar
LindiweM_Necklace_bed MAIN.jpg

Lindiwe Mazibuko has a lot to carry on her shoulders: at only 32, she is the youngest black woman leader in the Democratic Alliance, the fourth youngest Parliamentarian, a strong voice of the opposition, an active politician and a woman who is frequently attacked for ‘lacking authenticity’ or for being ‘just a kid’. She opens her closet to Daily Maverick’s EMILIE GAMBADE, revealing her considerable style and panache.

“I am 32 years old and it is very unusual to have a 32 year-old female politician in leadership in politics; people are already thrown by that. There is no point in trying to pretend that I am someone else and use camouflage to hide that aspect of [myself] that I should be celebrating; it should be what makes my offer or what it is that I have to say more compelling.” 

Lindiwe Mazibuko’s political statement is everything but a concealed one. The young Parliamentary Leader has a lot to offer: she is the first black leader of the DA in Parliament; an intelligent, articulate and rather thick-skinned woman.

emilie 289

Photo: Putting her statement red lipstick in her bathroom. (Kate Stegeman)

In past, she has been condemned by her detractors for shying away from the race issue, and called a “coconut” by Blade Nzimande for not being “black enough”. Shadow Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Masizole Mnqasela, blamed her for not having the right resonance with the black population of South Africa while Jackson Mthembu labelled her “naïve” and told her to “get a life”. Then Deputy Minister of Public Works, Jeremy Cronin, gave a speech in Parliament in which he unpacked the reasons why she wears her hair the way she does, as if it mattered, politically speaking.

The least one can say is that she gets people talking.

emilie 291

Photo: On the balcony of her Cape Town flat, wearing a blue T-shirt and assorted pleated skirt, both from Country Road and purple jacket from Habits. (Kate Stegeman)

Despite the aggressive criticisms and the gibes, she doesn’t bend. Rather, she takes her role seriously, sleeves rolled up, eloquence sharpened.

When it comes to power dressing, wearing clothes that back up her political responsibilities and add to her respectability, Mazibuko’s choices are bold and beautiful; she dresses the way she marches through politics, doubts and hesitations draped in a colourful poise. Perhaps the best, albeit harsh, way to describe it is that her wardrobe is an elegant ‘screw you’ to the usual display of black, green, yellow and to the common argument that herAfricanness is disputable.

Lindiwe Mazibuko is an African; born in Swaziland, she speaks isiZulu and French, grew up in the black township of Umlazi in KZN, attended a Catholic boarding school and holds a BA in French, Classics, Media & Writing and a BA Honours in Political Communication from the University of Cape Town. She was only twelve years old when she discovered London’s Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe, and from her walk down luxury lane, she remembers, “I thought, ‘This is everything I have been raised for, this is where I belong.’” Time has proven her wrong: she moved up into the political ring and Selfridges may relax; she didn’t lose her hunger for great style.

emilie 343

Photo: On the floor of her apartment; on her lap, pink cropped-jacket with black parrots from Monsoon; around her from the left, black and white baroque skirt with lace from Primark, tulle dress from Kluk CGDT, cropped top in black mesh from Stefania Morland, red jacket from Woolworths. (Kate Stegeman)

Her wardrobe represents her rather rich personality, a modern mix of influences rooted in her South African upbringing. She is, after all, a 21stCentury African, cosmopolitan and experimental woman, much more than a standard-bearer for one type of proudly South African blackness.

She doesn’t wear “twinsets and heels, (but) things that are comfortable and flattering, and colours that pop.” Her closet is a feminine trove: a baroque skirt with embossed flowers from Primark, a cropped-jacket in baby pink and printed black parrots from Monsoon, a clutch on appro from local designer Missibaba, (the brand lent it to her for a period of time) a pair of glittery gold heels, pieces from Zara, Trenery, Kluk CGDT or Stefania Morland.

emilie blackclutch 308

Photo: Clutch bag from Possum Missibaba (Kate Stegeman)

On the day of the interview, she is dressed head-to-toe in navy blue, T-Shirt, pleated skirt and plastic sandals from Country Road, a textbook sample of colour blocking. Is she symbolic of our local youth? Maybe not. The South African youth is still seeking its identity; it even once had a Malema’s Prada-Breitling combo as a role model. 

But for many the devil wears DA palatinate blue, and when Mazibuko weaved a fringe to her hair last year, her authenticity was suddenly questioned. “I never hid the fact that I was weaving my hair; I’m not one of those women who claim: ‘I’m a Mother of Africa, I must wear my hair natural’; I don’t think my hair is a political statement. I think hair is something you must have fun with.”

emilie 342

Photo: Purple jacket from Habits; red jacket from Woolworths; cropped top in black mesh  rom Stefania Morland (Kate Stegeman)

Her hair did become a subject of a political skirmish, when IFP’s Koos van der Merwe disturbed her speech to ask “on a point of order”: “Before the member continues, could she just explain to the House what she has done to her hair?” Mazibuko thought it was quite inappropriate, that there was a place and time for such comment and it was definitely out of the parliamentarian arena: “I also thought it was sexist; Mr van der Merwe thought he was lightening the mood, he didn’t actually realise he was doing something disruptive. He thought it would be fun to make a joke about my hair in a middle of a speech. There was very much this kind of patriarchal sense that I wouldn’t mind because I’m just a kid; it was incredibly disrespectful.” She brushed the remark off replying that she would gladly share the “secrets of her hairdo with him should he have any hair.” Mazibuko 1, van der Merwe 0.

Her razor-sharpness doesn’t mean she has no doubts or bottomless confidence. For style advice and inspiration, she turns to her “fashion friend,” freelance fashion consultant and blogger, Robyn Cooke. “It’s like having a therapist, she’s got a very good way of encouraging me not to go overboard, also not to go underboard, to find the middle ground… (Even if) there is no middle ground; I just get to be myself. She’s there to tweak my instincts a little bit.”

emilie 302

Photo: Showing her cream tulle dress with black edges from Kluk CGDT (Kate Stegeman)

For the State of the Nation Address, Mazibuko is going to wear black “with some magic to it,” an outfit she describes as “fun but in a demure way.” She chose a silk skirt from Thula Sindi, with a wide waist sitting all the way down her rib cage, and a bow at the back; on top, a cropped jacket in black mesh, embellished with flowers and subtle beads, worn over a corset. The competition is usually fierce on the red carpet, as MPs model their special attires, and the 2012 line-up was, if anything, carnivalesque. Looking at last year’s outfits, polychromatic was the new black and elegance was definitely yesterday.  

emilie 308

Photo: Converse takkies in DA blue and glitter gold heels she will wear for the State of the Nation Address (Kate Stegeman)

“We live politics every single day; but people receive us only in small snatches; all they see is pictures of us in the paper and what you see on this picture, what you wear, says a whole lot about who you are. In that sense, the way politicians dress is hugely influential and shows part of who they are and what their personality is. If you use it well and if you are genuine about it, it can be a way of showing your inner landscape to people without having to talk to them.” 

Her outfits tell stories of colours, experiments and a soft, distinctly feminine confidence; they also speak about a woman who embraces the world’s many influences while fighting fiercely for her very own. DM

Main photo: Lindiwe Mazibuko in her bedroom, trying on a collar necklace piece. (Kate Stegeman)

Story first published in the Daily Maverick 

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-02-14-out-of-the-closet-lindiwe-mazibuko/

{Time Travel 2012} Chronicles of chic: Fashion week, fashion weak

7 Mar
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Fashion is a merciless fairy-tale; from the small, often ignored studios of designers to the ruthless universe of retail, the competition is uncompromising and the reigning masters are few. Defined by the fashion weeks’ rigorous calendar, from New York to Paris or Milan, the world of what’s en vogue starts on the catwalks of four major fashion capitals. For a while, Cape Town’s been trying to join the party, with mixed results. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

Fashion Weeks are used to showcase the latest collections of inspiring designers around the world; usually split according to Prêt-à-Porter, Couture/ Haute Couture and Spring/ Summer, Autumn/ Winter, the pace is fast and the competition fierce. Magazine editors – the omni-powerful Anna Wintour front-row – local and international buyers, wealthy clients and VIPs of the day attend, hungry and demanding. It’s festive, fast and furious; it’s grandiose and emotional. Every faux pas is eagerly caught and reported by the press and enjoyed by the competitors. 

On the 6th of September, New York kicks off the round of fashion weeks, followed by London, Milan and Paris. Months before the shows, prominent fashion houses, owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), Richemont, Chanel SA and consorts, send their designers or close assistants across the world in order for them to build up their imaginary and mood boards. 

For as long as designers could dream, the translation of their inspiration, mainly fed through travels (across the oceans, real or imagined), readings and cross cultural sharing, gives birth to a collection, a mix of traditions and local workmanship; designers are final storytellers, writing with the tip of their scissors, silent lips and magic hands.  

In 1947, Christian Dior returned from a trip to the US and drew a collection inspired by the city of New York. Kim Jones, Louis Vuitton’s men style designer, recently used the Maasai traditional Shuka in his Spring/ Summer 2012 collection, some raising their voices to the ‘unashamed’ steal, while others praised his clever references to the bright blue and red decorative African fabric.

A collection tells a story of garments, shoes, hairstyles, makeup and accessories; the power of international fashion houses and their famous designers lies in their ability to write the tales of clothes and an ability to pull women and men into their world, glimpses of exotic places and faraway travels strongly embedded in their unique craftsmanship andsavoir-faire

The story-telling part is essential; a collection must have a meaning, the same way a painting, a sculpture is not done by chance, but the reflection of the artist’s mind; it is the mirror of someone’s very own creative intimacy, an attempt to embellish, dress the human body, turn it into a window to a new world of textures, cuts, tailoring and colours. 

Collections showcased at international fashion weeks typically encompass around twenty looks, worn by carefully selected models, focused by an edgy music, the whole spectacle set in a location that should be fitting it like a glove. 

Consistently, Africa inspires international designers and covers the pages of international magazines; splashes of warm tones and animal prints, hair like hens lost in the sand. The result, although a combination of western designs created by western hands for the western eye in search of faraway travels and motherland calling, is often beautiful, outrageous; it screams eternal sunshine and colourful fabrics, gold jewellery shining on the arms, heavy bangles worn like armours; African images on international catwalks seems rooted in the Serengeti or the vast lands of the Kruger Park, bright diamonds, ostrich feathers, zebra prints and leather skins symbols of an Africa very à la mode.

But what does Africa look like on South African catwalks? If it is anything similar to what was recently shown on the stages of the Cape Town Fashion Week (CTFW), then the Devil itself is reluctant to wear local.

Twenty-six local designers were presenting, over four days, what South Africa does best in terms of fashion design. Strictly speaking, it should be a proud display of local cutting, tailoring, trimming, all translated into a series of dresses, pants, blouses, shoes etc; and it should be, as Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, the director of African Fashion International (AFI) that held the fashion week in Cape Town, explained, “saleable”. 

Saleable, because if produced locally, from Cut, Make and Trim (CMT) to retail, a collection can generate a considerable income and be an economic driving force; the 2011 Annual Report of the French National Conference for the Industry (CNI), commissioned by the Ministry of Industry, states that the fashion and luxury industry in France employs 130,000 people with an annual turnover of 34 billion euros; around the globe, the fashion industry was worth 181 billion euros in 2011. 

Now, the recipe applies if a substantial part of the production happens locally, else the soufflé falls flat; in South Africa, the CMT sector is almost non-existent as the textile-manufacturing industry has dropped from highly competitive to barely surviving. Dr Moloi-Motsepe says, “As a country we have suffered a step back; we’ve lost quite a lot of textile mills, a bit of manufacturing because of the competition of cheaper imports that flooded our country.”

Does it affect what’s presented on the catwalks? Maybe, as the lack of sumptuous fabrics, perfectionism in detailing and consistency seems to be a repetitive pattern throughout the collections presented at the CTFW; and it is sabotaging an industry nonetheless blessed by unsung talents and bright ideas. It is clear that a fashion week makes sense, evident that creativity and imagination is blooming, obvious too that the designers – at least the majority of them – have worked hard and gained confidence over the years.  

If the event has been growing consistently for the past ten years, the collections still do not shout attention to detail, understanding of exacting proportions or authority built through a carefully designed education system; rather, they speak of a last-minute show thrown onto the big stage to the barely-bearable beat of dance music. 

There were some gems in the rough, still. Gavin Rajah handled the Dolce Vita cruise look with a confident hand; his collection reflected the 1950s with panelled dresses, bra corsets, darts on the waist line and sequined boleros all in splashes of pinks and zests of lemon; sported cowboy jackets had embroidered shadows of Fabergé eggs, while flowery blouse atop elegant high-waist wide-leg pants underlined a lanky silhouette; this was serious chic. 

Photo: Gavin Rajah, CTFW 2012, Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

David Tlale’s decision to bring his collection to Rose Street, BoKaap, was refreshing and inviting; the colourful houses were a contrasting backdrop for his very white production of garments. His story, no matter the monotonous cuts and the tedious drapery, was an invitation to silence, slowness and spirituality, a rather interesting take on an otherwise frantic week; the curlers in his models’ hair added some roundness to the angular scenery while the tribal makeup and geometric patches of white paint enhanced the simplicity of the clothes.

Other highlights included the charming Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performance at Stefania Morland’s show and her palette going decrescendo, from bright orange to pale flesh-coloured garments; Kluk CGDT audacity; Lalesso’s daring headpieces and a concerto of adventurous, carefully put together, inspiring styles worn by fashionistas just outside the shows.

Photo: David Tlale in the Bo-Kaap, CTFW 2012 (Simon Deiner/SDR Photo)

Dr Moloi-Motsepe states, “We have to make sure to integrate a pool of designers that are really spectacular and are using unique African designs and bring something different on the global fashion market; not really reproducing what other Europeans or international designers are doing but using local references and doing something that is uniquely African and saleable everywhere in the world.”

But here’s the thing: the pool of designers chosen for this CTFW might have produced “unique” collections or succeeded in being “saleable”, but there was still no real fabric, there were no cut mavericks, no playful takes on texture; there was no one who brought South African fashion into a new era, created an inspiring silhouette or told a story that was really purposeful. This is not because the country lacks talent, but when Stefania Morland presents skirts with hanging threads and garments that clearly have not been ironed, it does not shine a pretty light on the whole industry. And yes, it may be her signature, but it is not a desirable one. 

Fashion weeks around the world, led by New York, Paris, London and Milan, set the bar high; to join the elite world walking the catwalks, designers have to fit the brief without beating around the bush. South Africa, through the lens of the CTFW, seems to be slightly more lenient in its selection process. The next fashion week will be in Johannesburg, from 28 to 30 September, organised this time by South African Fashion Week. It will present another set of designers; and with five fashion weeks in total, jutting out Italy and France, South Africa provides more platforms for designers to showcase their work than the main fashion capitals – long forgotten the blessed principle of less is more.

To be uniquely African is a vast concept; from cherishing local workmanship and its instrumental value to embracing the incredible richness of our cultural diversity, there is a lot to feed designers’ creativity and distinctiveness; but it takes time to channel one’s imagination into a perfect dress, to master the art of cutting, to create a collection like the culmination of one’s talent; till then, a less sybaritic fashion week would be welcome. As Anna Wintour once said, “You either know fashion or you don’t.” And if you don’t, try to avoid showing it off on a catwalk. DM

Main photo: Stefania Morland at CTFW 2012 (Simon Deiner/SDR Photo)

Story first published in the Daily Maverick

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-08-23-chronicles-of-chic-fashion-week-fashion-weak

{Time Travel} Chronicles of Chic: And America found its Michelle O.

7 Mar
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There is a general agreement inside the global political arena that politics somehow must be unadventurous fashion-wise; think Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard and fashion isn’t, indeed, the first word that comes to mind. So when Michelle Obama started to wear fashion designers Prabal Gurung, Cushnie et Ochs or Alexander McQueen, and even added some bangs to her look, she very much shook the US political stage from its sleepy state-of-style. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

January 21, 2013. Newly re-elected US President Obama is talking to the American troops from Kandahar; alone on stage, naturally casual in a nonetheless formal white tie and black Hart Schaffner Marx tuxedo, Barack Obama knows how to charm and entertain the élite crowd gathered at the Washington Convention Centre for the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball. Still, despite his charisma and distinctive elegance, what fashion observers from around the globe are really waiting for is the First Lady’s appearance and the unveiling of her inaugural gown.

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Photo: A combination photo shows U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) wearing a Jason Wu gown at the Commander in Chief’s Ball l in Washington Janaury 21, 2013 and attending the Home States Ball also wearing Jason Wu January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Jim Young

That, in the middle of this show of democracy’s power, all eyes are on the First Lady is not surprising. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Michelle’s outfits have been broadly analysed, praised or criticised, including the recent diatribe by Women’s Wear Daily Executive Editor Bridget Foley: “Mrs. Obama isn’t an indulged starlet primping for the Oscars, nor should she behave like one” and, as the New Yorker noted, CNN’s Alina Cho’s euphoric tweets “Michelle #Obama wearing #ThomBrowne today for inauguration, wonderful choice;” there is not one of her outfits that doesn’t spark applause or discontent, not one of her pair of Jimmy Choo’s, coats or cardigans that is not dissected to its very thread, not one of her hairdos, those infamous bangs included, that doesn’t lead to copycats or wows of horror.

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Photo: Coat by Thom Browne and belt by J.Crew – Michelle Obama arrives at the Senate carriage entrance for the presidential inauguration ceremonies at the U.S Capitol in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, known for his caustic honesty, compared Michelle Obama’s inaugural fringe to one of a news anchor – think heavy hairspray and Barbara Walters. Joan Rivers publicly hoped that the hairdo wouldn’t last the four years of Obama’s stay in the White House, and Jon Stewart’s inauguration coverage was interrupted by the new “ba-ba-ba-bangs” of his bewigged correspondents, clearly inspired by the latest Michelle bob-effect.

The impact of her style and the study of its evolution were not always so immediate and global. In the early years of Barack Obama’s political burst, Michelle Obama preferred more conservative looks that didn’t spark much attention; sure, she was not yet the athletic model shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vogue in March 2009, her confident gaze looking straight at the camera, shoulders firmly carrying a headline filled with hope and expectations – “Michelle Obama: The First Lady the World’s Been Waiting For.” But she already carried a quiet confidence that often made her look just right.

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Photo: Magenta silk sheath dress by Jason Wu for Vogue Cover, March 2009.

Thanks to some outside expertise, she was propelled from ‘just right’ to being a symbol of daring fashion choices, the new bearer of the American way-of-style, where elegance and energy go in pair. Before Barack Obama hit the campaign trail on 10 February 2007, Michelle turned to Chicago-fashion retailer and style authority, Ikram Goldman, for wardrobe advice, and later to the young Meredith Koop, Goldman’s protégée. Although the White House vetoes interviews with the unofficial stylists, simply stating that their “responsibilities include advising the First Lady on her wardrobe and acting on her behalf in arranging for purchases,” Goldman’s influence was obvious; from Chicaco-based designer Maria Pinto’s purple dress to garments by up-and-coming, avant-garde designers like Jason Wu, Michelle Obama was soon taking more risks, embracing daring looks.

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Photo: Corporate power look – U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Michelle Obama as they walk on the South Lawn of the White House upon their return to Washington from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, December 14, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripa

As years went by and her style got increasingly celebrated, one couldn’t, and still can’t, but compare her natural fashion individuality to Jackie Kennedy Onassis; both turned to fashion connoisseurs for advice, Kennedy having consulted with Vogue Editor-in-Chief and “fashion oracle” Diana Vreeland (probably best described as Anna Wintour before Anna Wintour). Both Michelle and Jackie O. share a keen fashion sense of their own, a personality that takes possession of what they wear, as no garment, be it stitched with gold, should ever eclipse their own charisma.

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Photo: Jackie O and John F Kennedy. (Reuters)

Jackie O’s clothing choices were commented on all around the globe: she was adulated, creating trends and fashion clones that are still visible today; her style was impeccable, fit as much to her dignified character as to her lithe frame. The media had a love affair with her, watching every step she made in her low heels: American style observers were desperately waiting for her next style incarnation, their adoration turned her into a walking myth that no other First Lady could have ever hoped to match.

Until now.

Michelle O’s approach to fashion is filled with gusto and originality and understanding of what suits her athletic figure. She is playful with her clothes and loyal to the designers; when it became clear she decided to wear Jason Wu again at the Inaugural Ball, the same designer twice in a row, fashion critics found it either brilliant or shocking, endearing her loyalty or dismissing her lack of originality, battling to decide if the red was ‘ruby’ or ‘persimmon’, bursting with ingenuity to describe the chiffon and velvet gown, halter-neck, V-back, flowing skirt, waist belted; the “Michelle-O-mania” matched the politics for the night.

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Photo: Ivory georgette gown by Tom Ford – Michelle Obama poses for a photograph before a State Dinner at Buckingham Palace in London May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Jackson/Pool

And with every outfit, the myth grows and America finds its new Jackie O. In 2007, Michelle was listed in Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List, in 2009, the CFDA awarded her with a Board of Directors Special Tribute for her support to local designers. In 2010, she was included in the Vogue list of the Decade’s Best-Dressed Women.

She makes daily fashion statements while preaching for simplicity and individuality. In an interview with Vogue, she declares, “[F]irst and foremost, I wear what I love. That’s what women have to focus on: what makes them happy and what makes them comfortable and beautiful.”

Michelle O. looks, indeed, comfortable in her own clothes; she has access to some of the most beautiful garments available on the velvet hangers of international couture houses. Yet her picks speak not only crafted garments and designer gowns, but also intelligent and playful combinations – pieces from American retailer J.Crew and designer Thom Browne. In 2011, she dared to wear a red petal silk organza dress by the very British Alexander McQueen (designed by Sarah Burton) to a state dinner for China, facing a wave of protestations at her patronage fleeing America.

Ironically, in the early 1960’s, then-young Jackie Kennedy, fan of Parisian couture, with a wardrobe greatly composed of Balenciaga and Chanel, was given the subtle instruction to “cut the Paris cord.” Times change, and while Kennedy opted for Oleg Cassini, a sophisticated French-born American fashion designer, as her official designer, Michelle O. responded to the press with a smile and a clear “I wear what I like.”

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Photo: 3/4 sleeve coat and dress by Naeem Khan – U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama walk into the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Because Michelle O. can’t only be defined by her outfits or the designers she wears, but her daring choices and an unmistakable twist to the protocol. The message: no-one owns her personal brand but her.

Over the last six years, she successfully and effortlessly brought back a theatrical glow to the political stage. And as rumours go, she will probably be the March cover of Vogue – once again featuring Michelle O; this time an icon. DM

Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance at the Inaugural Ball in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Story first published in the Daily Maverick

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-02-06-chronicles-of-chic-and-america-found-its-michelle-o/

{Time Travel} Chronicles of Chic: Mighty milliner – a tale of perseverance

7 Mar

“Christian Lacroix once said, “a hat is the dot on the ‘i’; to me, this is exactly it; it finishes an outfit, it’s like an exclamation mark; it’s so small… It’s sculptural.’ Albertus Swanepoel’s stylish sculptures are often seen perched on the heads of Hollywood celebrities and dandling on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week; don’t be fooled, the road was long to make it in America. The milliner from Pretoria meets with EMILIE GAMBADE from Paris in midtown Manhattan.

Lafayette Street; Courtney Love walks by, swathed in a long brown shapeless coat, hair hanging loose, her shadow soon swallowed by the city. Albertus Swanepoel, a tall silhouette dressed head-to-toe in black, punctuated with an impassable smile, meets this reporter at a local coffee shop, down a steep staircase.

Seated at a round table in the darkness of a midtown Manhattan underground café, Swanepoel appears graceful despite his haute stature; it might be the softness of his voice or the light hopping in his eyes, but there is gentleness in his being, something that also shines through his creations. It could be two fuchsia and coral flowers on a straw hat, a piece of gold brocade, a cloche covered with tango-pink lace, a shweshwe ribbon crowning a wide-brimmed panama; there is grace and an undeniable distinctiveness in his elegant hats, a panache out of Africa.

Born in Pretoria, Swanepoel studied fashion design and worked for seven years in the country until he and his wife decided to leave South Africa for the US: “My big dream was to go to Paris; yet, I was so stunned by New York… it was in 1989; it was very glamorous.”

In 1991, the glamour dims as recession hits America and the aspiring fashion designer is forced to apply his creativity and talent to a more lucrative project. “I couldn’t get a job because I had to get sponsored and this wasn’t easy; I (was) more and more depressed; my wife and I bought gloves from Italy and started decorating them with rhinestones and other precious things; it was all done by hand… It (was) very chic.”

Fifth Avenue luxury goods store Bergdorf Goodman was suitably charmed: a $10,000 order followed, leading Swanepoel and his wife towards a growing fashion accessory commerce operating mainly in winter when temperatures drop and the demand for gloves blooms. “Because it was only a winter business, I had to do something for summer; I reluctantly went back to school and started to study millinery at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT); I interned for millinery for another seven years and was a hand-weaver over the weekend; at one point, I handled three jobs; things were really tough… It was miserable.”

The Swanepoel couple ran their small hat company until they separated in 2000; Albertus then stumbled into a series of what he calls “disasters”, from losing his job as style editor of Martha Stewart Wedding magazine to being evicted from his Manhattan flat. Yet, no matter the bumpy road, no matter the shared Brooklyn apartment with 11 other people and a storage room where all his belongings – hat blocks, books, clothes – were flooded and destroyed in one night, there is no bitterness in Swanepoel’s tone as he tells the story of his journey to New York; instead, he is a humble man who got used to constantly adjusting the helm and accepting hiccups as part of the ride.

It was only two years after separating from his wife, in 2002, that Swanepoel met his boyfriend who happens to know the head of design at Marc Jacobs. Jacobs’s team needed hats for the collection and soon Swanepoel designed a first range, quickly followed by another one for Proenza Schouler. “First, they (Proenza Schouler) ordered five cloches; then 10; the day before the show, they ordered 25 dark cloches. A hat is the last thing designers and stylists think about; it’s like ‘oh, okay, let’s put a hat on the model!’ I worked through the night for three days and, in the end, the show looked amazing.” So much so that Style.com featured Swanepoel in its digital magazine, 25 gallery-pages of his creations and the beginning of recognition; the wheel had turned.

“I didn’t have a collection at the time. I literally slammed a collection in a week, went to see Barney’s – they were the ultimate store to sell to – and they gave me an incredible order asking for exclusivity; that’s how my business really started.”

In 2008, Swanepoel entered the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund competition; founded to “support the next generation of American fashion designers”, it is to the world of fashion what the Academy Awards are to movies; doing well there it is to walk a Vogue walk of fame.

“They chose 10 finalists; I was one of them… you then become part of that very elite Vogue/CFDA clique. It helped my career unbelievably.” With a panel of judges including Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg and Patrick Robinson, ex-Director of GAP, it sure helps connect with the select “who is who” of the fashion family and fast-forward the climb to recognition; and if this wasn’t glamorous enough, there is always the occasional party at Wintour’s house. “They have this incredible network of business people who can help you… and of course, every year, there is a fabulous party.”

As a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runner up, Swanepoel soon received press attention and his hats were regularly featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE or the New York Times. He also collaborated with Kate Winslet on her book The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism in which 100 celebrities wear his hat with proceeds being used to “build innovative living campuses for people with autism.”

Another benefit of being part of the CFDA/Vogue elite is exposure; the milliner was recently in Paris, part of the CFDA/Vogue exhibition called “Americans in Paris”; 10 carefully handpicked winners of the Fashion Fund competition presenting their range rue Marbeuf. PR-ed by KCD, the public relations house for Cartier, Balmain, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs and Gap, to name but a few, the exhibition is for the 10 designers a marketing coup on RedBull; if all sales fail, they have been presented as Wintour’s protégés, her reputable eye and non-dismissible opinion like a stamp of hype embossed on the designers’ creations.

Swanepoel can boast about covering the heads of Julia Roberts, Aretha Franklin, the über-trendy Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard; he can brag about designing hats to crown the collections of Thakoon, Caroline Herrera and Alexander Wang or drinking cocktails with Wintour, but he surprisingly doesn’t; he has a particularly sharp understanding of his place in a highly capricious world and a compassionate look at his struggling past.

“I was very upset the first few years… All I wanted was to be a fashion designer; it didn’t work… I always loved craft so it was easy to break into the fashion accessories world. I have a really small business, but I’m highly regarded and it’s a niche market; there are literally five of us in New York, who design hats for men and women.”

Would have it been the same in his home country? “I don’t think I would have had the same success story in South Africa; there is not the same hat culture, although one could think people should wear hats because of the sun; I feel in South Africa, it’s more  show business, it’s really ostentatious; people are trying to make a statement, which is not what I do. My hats are very much wearable.”

Swanepoel assessment of South Africa’s weak fashion sector that is handicapped by a lack of excellence in education, the decline of the manufacturing industry and a poor access to quality fabrics, is damning in its precision. “My teacher studied in London, there are brilliant pattern makers and tailors; they share their craftsmanship; there is no one in South Africa who can pass on that sort of legacy anymore. Do people travel? Get experience? In South Africa, ego seems to be bigger than talent… If you want to play on the bigger stage, then get real.”

Despite his obvious love for his birth country –, his constant use of African textures, fabrics, bits and pieces from the mother land – Swanepoel gives a piercing review of our local fashion design landscape: “I truly think that in South Africa there is amazing advertising, there are people doing incredible furniture design, industrial design, but fashion design stinks; there is nobody who gets it right; except maybe Marianne (Fassler), or Black Coffee; everybody else either copies Europe or it looks like a Broadway musical. I don’t understand it; I’m just fascinated.

Talent without knowledge, passion and perseverance often fades; but when it all comes together, it becomes like the dot on the “i”. Essential.

“I must say, I was a little bit the same when I started and I had never been overseas; I called myself a couture designer; I went to London, to New York and I walked into Barney’s; I saw what people can do; I was depressed out of my skull. I was like, what the hell have I been thinking?”  DM

This story was first published in the Daily Maverick

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-12-14-chronicles-of-chic-mighty-milliner-a-tale-of-perseverance

Chronicles of Chic: Some call it fashion, some call it the epic fight between good and evil

6 Mar
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South Africa has been engaged in some hefty gender debates lately, and with good reason. But on a more subtle level, the lens through which women are viewed is being bent in a hundred creative ways on the world at large’s catwalks. From powerful women in tailored outfits to models in sexualised positions, from a celebration of the female body to its abuse, fashion itself wobbles between the best and the worst. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, one could have been forgiven for wishing that one (South African) part of the split-screen would disappear in the ether of bad, bad horror fantasy. From the bottom of Africa and in the eyes of a fashion reporter, the news was divided between flashes of the New York Fashion Week and the horrible death of Reeva Steenkamp. While some were celebrating women modelling in a creative frenzy of the latest designs by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs, braving the blizzard left by the snowstorm Nemo, others were still stunned by the brutal deaths of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp.

In many ways, the paradox between women being abused, their rights being scorned all over the world, and pictures of models walking down the runway in luxury outfits, heels hammering the floor, projections of powerful and confident women, is rather ironic.

But it is not unsurprising: fashion battles with its own schizophrenia, partly iconic and inspiring, partly domineering. Fashion is pulled between feminism, a plea to empower and beautify women through their clothes and, on the opposite, an ultra-sexualisation of the woman’s body with a tendency to present models as objects instead of human beings. As feminist writer Meg Clark said, fashion is “An instrument of gender oppression and a means to feminist liberation.”

It is, without a doubt, dichotomous; on the good side, it is a symbol of women’s playful self-expression, a tool that can help shape someone’s public persona. Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan explains that “fashion is the way we choose to present ourselves in the public square. It captures whether or not we choose to be on trend, but also addresses those people who have a belligerence towards fashion and are very stern in the announcing of their lack of interest in the subject.”

Fashion could also be a liberation: French designers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet freed women from corsets and stiff structures in the 1920s, liberating their natural curves; years of social caging suddenly disappeared. Coco Chanel inspired many to think for themselves, “aloud”, offering sportive masculine silhouettes, short haircuts, wide pants that made ruffles and long skirts look very passé. Yves Saint Laurent dressed women in ‘le smoking’ (a tuxedo for women) showing off what the New York Times called a “lavishly moneyed kind” of woman, comfortable in her own pants.

Economically, the fashion industry, mainly the Haute Couture houses, kept shining a bright light on craftsmanship, showing the importance of technical skills and hand-made works. Parisian atelier François Lesage is one example of prestige given to craft. The incredible embroideries added finesse and sophistication to clothes and brought local workmanship back to the front stage, a deep contrast with the today’s controversial trio of fast-fashion, cheap labour and poor quality.

On the darker side, fashion rhymes with gender oppression. Fashion imagery is often scandalous, offering women’s ti(r)ed, battered and strapped bodies to the public eye as a socially acceptable and even desirable norm. Photographer Helmut Newton, the master of ‘porn chic,’ who transformed fashion photography with his breathtaking black and white portraits, depicted a woman that was either a femme fatale or afemme objet. Although men were often seen servile in the background, it didn’t go without some heavy controversy, the idea that a woman cannot be anything else but a sexual object.

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Photo: The work of Helmut Newton

Last year, Bulgarian magazine 12 made the fashion headlines for choosing disturbing images of battered women for its editorial “Victim of Beauty” in an attempt to present the art and ‘magic’ of make-up. The result was shocking, as the series depicted abused women as possible fashion icons. At its best, it did show how effective special-effects make-up could be. At its worst, it was an outrageous shoot by Vasil Germanov, using violence on women as a possible trend-setting fashion editorial.

Fashion is also the driving force behind a long-lasting stereotype that defines a ‘beautiful’ woman as eternally young and skinny. The ghosts of anorexia still haunt the backstage of fashion weeks, and magazines, although they sometimes welcome front covers with curves and voluptuousness, mainly feature androgynous girls.

Naomi Wolf noted in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Thinness persists, and millions of women still bend under the weight of their scales, echoing the silent scream of an all-too obedient woman, who wants to please and appeal, prisoner of her own image.

Also on the list of controversies is the use of animal fur, which is a recurrent drama on the catwalks, PETA on the starting blocks of every fashion weeks, buckets of fresh blood in hand. Not to mention the race debates: white firmly remains the new white as seasons go by and racial diversity seems forever forgotten on international ramps; the fashion industry often sparks some heavy controversies about under-age labour in Asian countries.

What about fashion weeks? Apart from being a barometer of international trends, a marketplace for buyers from around the globe, and a recurrent live show for fashion controversies, it sometimes is and should be an epitome of femininity mixed with feminism, a tribute to women’s persona, as they are, ultimately, the clients. Madeleine Vionnet used to say, “The final aim of our métier is to create dresses that make a harmonious body and a pleasing silhouette. It is about making beauty. That’s what it’s all about.” Yves Saint Laurent claimed that what was “important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”

This is a concept that shone brightly at some of the collections presented this season in New York and London; the art of empowering women seemed to find its way between feminine and masculine combinations, ample and restrained volumes, round edges and sharp cuts, heavy fabrics and sheer layers. For Autumn/ Winter 2013-2014, designers who managed to dress the woman’s body with attention, engaged in a look that embraced genders’ union.

Timo Weiland in New York showed a ‘strictly comes Manhattan’ look that was extremely flattering. It was boyish without lacking femininity, the yin and the yang combined in blue marine checked pattern, red chiffon and above-the-knee long leather and sheep shearling coats; they added a touch of elegant fun with inverted-bowl-shaped caps by South African Albertus Swanepoel.

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Photos: Timo Weiland

Tommy Hilfiger also played with the feminine-meets-masculine, wide coats floating over the body, empowering women with classic elegance. Victoria Beckham’s voluminous silhouettes and tailored cuts, in herringbone, tweed and tartan were definitely modern, while Max Mara went for wide shapes, men’s coats, pyjama’s style in shades of bronze and deep black.

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Photo: Max Mara

A similar trend was seen at Alexander Wang, the new fashion ‘chéri’ at the helm of Balenciaga, with elongated silhouettes punctuated with bombers, hooded pullovers in cashmere and long gloves in black fur. At Pierre Balmain and Rag & Bone, the woman rocks, simply, an air of decisive confidence on her shoulders, black leather pants, tailored jackets and pointy boots.

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Photos: Alexander Wang

In London, Paul Smith painted his manly women’s collection in bright colours, pleated pants, men’s shirts and reefer jackets. It was impeccable and casually chic.

Not all shows presented collections with a masculine twist, and the ones that didn’t were still remarkable. But pictures of an urban woman, showing that confidence, spirit and strictness are not mutually exclusive and that fashion and feminism can work, were refreshing and soul-soothing.

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Photo: Paul Smith

And then there were the barbarians.

The few designers who thought that caging woman’s body in some impossible outfits or leaving them naked, maybe under the idea that fashion is art, was somehow appealing.

Thom Browne, a relatively low-key designer until Michelle Obama graced the world in one of his coats for last January inaugural day, produced an interesting collection, borderline between the witch from Snow White and a woman jumping out of a geometry book. Shoulders were wide; patterns were straight and in line and roses were red. All in all, his woman looked stiff and stuck in some motionless era. This said, once deconstructed and pieces taken individually, it could work.

Veteran British designer Pam Hogg went for bold outfits, as in loud and extravagant, and uncontrolled hats; imagine an infatuated Chapka in white fur toping up a full body transparent jumpsuit, with bits of bunny hair hiding the chest and the pelvic area. She also was inspired enough or lazy enough to present models in total nudity, pushing the ‘less is more’ to the new depths of meaninglessness. She should have listened to Robin Givhan’s comment: “What’s troubling is when you come across a rogue expression of sexuality or one that is disrespectful or dismissive of women’s power. If you express sexuality without a sense of power and control, fashion enters very troubling waters.”

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Photo: Pam Hogg

Also in London, Ekaterina Kukhareva’s knitwear collection was interesting, but the Desperate Housewives impossible hairstyle and higher-than-high platform shoes seemed fitter to Lady Gaga’s shows than to real life. Women do want to have fun, but not at the price of a broken leg.

After Paris, Johannesburg will host the AFI Fashion Week, from the 7 to the 9 March, and the South African Fashion Week, from 10 to 13 April. In the end, it will be a month and a half of fashion weeks.

“It pains me physically to see a woman victimised, rendered pathetic, by fashion,” said Yves Saint Laurent. In the light of the recent murders and the rise of violence on women, it is more than necessary that fashion stops trivialising women’s bodies, featuring restrained limbs, battered figures as something desirable or even trendy. Our troubled culture doesn’t need fashion to be a bitch; it needs inspiration and respect. Urgently. DM

 This article was first published in the Daily Maverick

Pure feetichism 9. Géométrie sur terre.

17 Oct

Petals of felt. Joburg Art Fair, Sandton.

Geometry. Joburg Art Fair, Sandton.

Art thou there? Joburg Art Fair, Sandton

Southampton, Long Island, United States of America

Southampton, Long Island, USA

Pure feetichism 8.

10 Sep

Waiting for God(asses)

 

Bien chaussée. Kalk Bay under the rain. South Africa

 

Beach time (beat the weather). False Bay, South Africa

 

Bravery. Bridge crossing. Hermanus, South Africa

 

Careful: Rocks falling, boots lazying. Betty’s Bay, South Africa

 

With a view. Hermanus, South Africa

 

 

 

 

 

#Wanted: Chronicles of Chic (Take Two) Fashion week, fashion weak

27 Aug

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Fashion is a merciless fairy-tale; from the small, often ignored studios of designers to the ruthless universe of retail, the competition is uncompromising and the reigning masters are few. Defined by the fashion weeks’ rigorous calendar, from New York to Paris or Milan, the world of what’s en vogue starts on the catwalks of four major fashion capitals. For a while, Cape Town’s been trying to join the party, with mixed results. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

Fashion Weeks are used to showcase the latest collections of inspiring designers around the world; usually split according to Prêt-à-Porter, Couture/ Haute Couture and Spring/ Summer, Autumn/ Winter, the pace is fast and the competition fierce. Magazine editors – the omni-powerful Anna Wintour front-row – local and international buyers, wealthy clients and VIPs of the day attend, hungry and demanding. It’s festive, fast and furious; it’s grandiose and emotional. Every faux pas is eagerly caught and reported by the press and enjoyed by the competitors.

On the 6th of September, New York kicks off the round of fashion weeks, followed by London, Milan and Paris. Months before the shows, prominent fashion houses, owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), Richemont, Chanel SA and consorts, send their designers or close assistants across the world in order for them to build up their imaginary and mood boards.

For as long as designers could dream, the translation of their inspiration, mainly fed through travels (across the oceans, real or imagined), readings and cross cultural sharing, gives birth to a collection, a mix of traditions and local workmanship; designers are final storytellers, writing with the tip of their scissors, silent lips and magic hands.

In 1947, Christian Dior returned from a trip to the US and drew a collection inspired by the city of New York. Kim Jones, Louis Vuitton’s men style designer, recently used the Maasai traditional Shuka in his Spring/ Summer 2012 collection, some raising their voices to the ‘unashamed’ steal, while others praised his clever references to the bright blue and red decorative African fabric.

A collection tells a story of garments, shoes, hairstyles, makeup and accessories; the power of international fashion houses and their famous designers lies in their ability to write the tales of clothes and an ability to pull women and men into their world, glimpses of exotic places and faraway travels strongly embedded in their unique craftsmanship and savoir-faire.

The story-telling part is essential; a collection must have a meaning, the same way a painting, a sculpture is not done by chance, but the reflection of the artist’s mind; it is the mirror of someone’s very own creative intimacy, an attempt to embellish, dress the human body, turn it into a window to a new world of textures, cuts, tailoring and colours.

Collections showcased at international fashion weeks typically encompass around twenty looks, worn by carefully selected models, focused by an edgy music, the whole spectacle set in a location that should be fitting it like a glove.

Consistently, Africa inspires international designers and covers the pages of international magazines; splashes of warm tones and animal prints, hair like hens lost in the sand. The result, although a combination of western designs created by western hands for the western eye in search of faraway travels and motherland calling, is often beautiful, outrageous; it screams eternal sunshine and colourful fabrics, gold jewellery shining on the arms, heavy bangles worn like armours; African images on international catwalks seems rooted in the Serengeti or the vast lands of the Kruger Park, bright diamonds, ostrich feathers, zebra prints and leather skins symbols of an Africa very à la mode.

But what does Africa look like on South African catwalks? If it is anything similar to what was recently shown on the stages of the Cape Town Fashion Week (CTFW), then the Devil itself is reluctant to wear local.

Twenty-six local designers were presenting, over four days, what South Africa does best in terms of fashion design. Strictly speaking, it should be a proud display of local cutting, tailoring, trimming, all translated into a series of dresses, pants, blouses, shoes etc; and it should be, as Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, the director of African Fashion International (AFI) that held the fashion week in Cape Town, explained, “saleable”.

Saleable, because if produced locally, from Cut, Make and Trim (CMT) to retail, a collection can generate a considerable income and be an economic driving force; the 2011 Annual Report of the French National Conference for the Industry (CNI), commissioned by the Ministry of Industry, states that the fashion and luxury industry in France employs 130,000 people with an annual turnover of 34 billion euros; around the globe, the fashion industry was worth 181 billion euros in 2011.

Now, the recipe applies if a substantial part of the production happens locally, else the soufflé falls flat; in South Africa, the CMT sector is almost non-existent as the textile-manufacturing industry has dropped from highly competitive to barely surviving. Dr Moloi-Motsepe says, “As a country we have suffered a step back; we’ve lost quite a lot of textile mills, a bit of manufacturing because of the competition of cheaper imports that flooded our country.”

Does it affect what’s presented on the catwalks? Maybe, as the lack of sumptuous fabrics, perfectionism in detailing and consistency seems to be a repetitive pattern throughout the collections presented at the CTFW; and it is sabotaging an industry nonetheless blessed by unsung talents and bright ideas. It is clear that a fashion week makes sense, evident that creativity and imagination is blooming, obvious too that the designers – at least the majority of them – have worked hard and gained confidence over the years.

If the event has been growing consistently for the past ten years, the collections still do not shout attention to detail, understanding of exacting proportions or authority built through a carefully designed education system; rather, they speak of a last-minute show thrown onto the big stage to the barely-bearable beat of dance music.

There were some gems in the rough, still. Gavin Rajah handled the Dolce Vita cruise look with a confident hand; his collection reflected the 1950s with panelled dresses, bra corsets, darts on the waist line and sequined boleros all in splashes of pinks and zests of lemon; sported cowboy jackets had embroidered shadows of Fabergé eggs, while flowery blouse atop elegant high-waist wide-leg pants underlined a lanky silhouette; this was serious chic.

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Photo: Gavin Rajah, CTFW 2012, Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

David Tlale’s decision to bring his collection to Rose Street, BoKaap, was refreshing and inviting; the colourful houses were a contrasting backdrop for his very white production of garments. His story, no matter the monotonous cuts and the tedious drapery, was an invitation to silence, slowness and spirituality, a rather interesting take on an otherwise frantic week; the curlers in his models’ hair added some roundness to the angular scenery while the tribal makeup and geometric patches of white paint enhanced the simplicity of the clothes.

Other highlights included the charming Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performance at Stefania Morland’s show and her palette going decrescendo, from bright orange to pale flesh-coloured garments; Kluk CGDT audacity; Lalesso’s daring headpieces and a concerto of adventurous, carefully put together, inspiring styles worn by fashionistas just outside the shows.

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Photo: David Tlale in the Bo-Kaap, CTFW 2012 (Simon Deiner/SDR Photo)

Dr Moloi-Motsepe states, “We have to make sure to integrate a pool of designers that are really spectacular and are using unique African designs and bring something different on the global fashion market; not really reproducing what other Europeans or international designers are doing but using local references and doing something that is uniquely African and saleable everywhere in the world.”

But here’s the thing: the pool of designers chosen for this CTFW might have produced “unique” collections or succeeded in being “saleable”, but there was still no real fabric, there were no cut mavericks, no playful takes on texture; there was no one who brought South African fashion into a new era, created an inspiring silhouette or told a story that was really purposeful. This is not because the country lacks talent, but when Stefania Morland presents skirts with hanging threads and garments that clearly have not been ironed, it does not shine a pretty light on the whole industry. And yes, it may be her signature, but it is not a desirable one.

Fashion weeks around the world, led by New York, Paris, London and Milan, set the bar high; to join the elite world walking the catwalks, designers have to fit the brief without beating around the bush. South Africa, through the lens of the CTFW, seems to be slightly more lenient in its selection process. The next fashion week will be in Johannesburg, from 28 to 30 September, organised this time by South African Fashion Week. It will present another set of designers; and with five fashion weeks in total, jutting out Italy and France, South Africa provides more platforms for designers to showcase their work than the main fashion capitals – long forgotten the blessed principle of less is more.

To be uniquely African is a vast concept; from cherishing local workmanship and its instrumental value to embracing the incredible richness of our cultural diversity, there is a lot to feed designers’ creativity and distinctiveness; but it takes time to channel one’s imagination into a perfect dress, to master the art of cutting, to create a collection like the culmination of one’s talent; till then, a less sybaritic fashion week would be welcome. As Anna Wintour once said, “You either know fashion or you don’t.” And if you don’t, try to avoid showing it off on a catwalk. DM

Main photo: Stefania Morland at CTFW 2012 (Simon Deiner/SDR Photo)

Story published in the Daily Maverick. 

Pure feetichism 7: Sous les pieds, le vaste monde.

16 Aug

City Sprint – Johannesburg, South Africa

Airport – Somewhere in Europe (Give It Bag on hand)

Augrabies Falls (ceci n’est pas une prison) – Orange River, South Africa

Dust ROad & tyre prints N7 – South Africa

The unbearable beauty of hotel carpets – Utrecht, The Netherlands

Bus (yawn) – Zürich, Switzerland

Et les pieds dans l’herbe soudain s’enchantent – Geneva, Switzerland

Sparkles – Lake, Zürich, Switzerland