No, that was not avant garde, 'Project Runway'!

What exactly is avant garde fashion? Not the designs on the last episode of 'Project Runway SA', that’s for sure

21 August 2018 - 15:02 By Zola Zingithwa
Rihanna attends 'Rei Kawakubo/Commes Des Garcons: Art of the In-Between' at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City. The singer's outfit is the epitome of avant garde.
Rihanna attends 'Rei Kawakubo/Commes Des Garcons: Art of the In-Between' at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City. The singer's outfit is the epitome of avant garde.
Image: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Project Runway South Africa has been on our screens for six weeks and we have got to know the designers’ styles and the judges’ quirks.

Some great designs have been created, showcasing an exciting new crop of designers, however, last week’s episode was disappointing. The brief was avant garde, inspired by TRESemmé hair products. Yet, when the models hit the runway, I wondered if the designers understood what “avant garde” meant. It’s not that the designs were bad but no one could blame you for assuming it was a ready-to-wear show.

The term “avant garde” originally referred to the soldiers sent to the front lines, who had to face the enemy before the rest of the army. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term started to be used to describe innovative approaches to art, evolving in today’s lexicon to describe radical art that “reflects originality of vision”, according to the Tate Institute. Vogue adds that avant garde design is often confusing and “works against itself”.

In an interview with the magazine, Glenn Adamson, former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, argued that commercial fashion established and followed trends with the aim of having broad appeal. Avant garde, on the other hand, was about embarking on “risky, undefined, territory”.

Taking these definitions into account, can we really say the contestants on Project Runway created avant-garde designs? The winning dress, by Kentse Masilo, was a stunning design and beautifully tailored. But was it avant garde? Did it push the boundaries of what fashion could be? Rahim Rawjee, one of the resident judges, even praised it for being in tune with current trends.

Here are examples of avant garde fashion by the designers Viktor and Rolf:

the amsterdam chainsaw massacre #viktorandrolf #kunsthalrotterdam

A post shared by Renata Szlachta (@renataszlachta) on

There were some elements of creativity among the designs, such as the African-pattern ruffled sleeve Sandile Mlambo designed, but the overall execution was not satisfactory.

Avant-garde work should not shy away from being jarring and challenging. Laduma Ngxokolo, the designer behind MaXhosa by Laduma, was the guest judge on the episode and, going by his comments, he was also not impressed by most of the designs.

He suggested Siphosihle Masango could have incorporated LED lights into his design to elevate the glittering fabric. I was horrified (and so were the other judges) because who in their right mind would wear LED lights in a dress? Wouldn’t that be tacky?

But Ngxokolo was challenging Masango. He argued South African designers should be innovative, even with their fabric, and make it unique to their brand. Clearly he wanted the avant garde!

Avant garde is obviously not meant to be commercial. Unfortunately, many South African fashion designers cannot afford to pursue an art form that is not commercially viable. Yet, on Project Runway, the contestants had an opportunity to create avant-garde designs, without the pressure of needing to make a profit from their work. They had the chance to concoct designs that were forward-thinking, creative and even weird.

Perhaps they thought the judges wouldn’t appreciate experimentation.

In any case, what does it say about the South African fashion industry if designers are not willing to reject the norms and find new ways of thinking?

This is not to say that the show’s contestants lack originality. If anything, the past few episodes have demonstrated tremendous creativity from South Africa’s up-and-coming fashion designers. But what is the point of finding new designers if they are not going disrupt the industry and create new fashion?

Hopefully, tonight’s episode will move into fifth gear and surprise us. But, judging by last week’s previews, it seems the drama will not be on the runway but involve a sexist moment in the sewing room. Yawn.