Is female empowerment in the fashion biz a myth disguised as a slogan tee?

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine takes a closer look at diversity in the local retail industry

10 November 2019 - 00:00 By Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine
Fezile Mdletshe of the Fezile Fashion Skills Academy with student Slindile Sangweni and mentor Hlengiwe Gumede. Far left, students Nobuhle and Thandeka Khoza.
Fezile Mdletshe of the Fezile Fashion Skills Academy with student Slindile Sangweni and mentor Hlengiwe Gumede. Far left, students Nobuhle and Thandeka Khoza.
Image: Sally Chance

T-shirts branded with feminist slogans sell like hot cakes. "Girl power", "Womandla", and "The future is female" are an announcement that the time has come for women to take leadership roles alongside men.

Retailers are using "femvertising" – female empowerment, messaging and imagery to empower its consumers (and sell products) – but how much fempower Kool Aid is the industry actually drinking?

In its "How do women fare in the South African labour market?" report, Stats SA says women accounted for 43.8% of total employment in the second quarter of 2018 - but only 32% of managers in SA were women.

Kopano Kwapeng is the owner of KSquared Creations, an image consulting, styling, bespoke clothing and branding company. She has worked in the fashion industry for 15 years, starting at Stoned Cherrie, then moving to Edcon, The Foschini Group and Woolworths. In January 2018, finding the environment too hostile, she left corporate retail.

Kwapeng says she was hired to bring change to the industry that would attract the market she represents and understands — the black Gauteng customer.

"You are asked to execute new thinking and when sales figures don't immediately support the strategy, management panics and you get crucified for tinkering with the existing strategy," she says.

"The retail industry is untransformed at head office and in merchandising roles and when you share black consumer insights, your views are seen as personal rather than valuable," she says. "You are second-guessed, and under pressure to prove your worth instead of being given support and mentorship by seasoned leaders."

H&M country manager for SA Oldouz Mirzaie says increasing diversity and inclusivity as well as awareness about sustainability were focus areas for SA and Africa in 2019.

This month, the global retailer opens its 27th store since entering the South African market in 2015. The business employs 1,000 people across its units, reporting that 63% of its local workforce is female and 37% male.

H&M country manager Oldouz Mirzaie with student Gcina Ngcoya.
H&M country manager Oldouz Mirzaie with student Gcina Ngcoya.
Image: Sally Chance

In April H&M hosted the first African Fashion Sustainability Summit in Joburg, inviting Fezile Mdletshe to be part of a panel discussion. Mdletshe worked as a fashion buyer for six years, for two of the largest retail groups in SA.

"It was a male-dominated industry," she says. "Black women were a minority in specialist positions and management was dominated by white men and women. There is transformation but not much has changed since my days."

In March, Mdletshe launched the Fezile Fashion Skills Academy to help create the next generation of skilled graduates in fashion design, entrepreneurship and clothing production. It's the first accredited fashion college in KwaMashu and boasts six national and internationally recognised FP&M (Fibre Processing & Manufacturing), SETA (Sector Education and Training Authority) and SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) qualifications.

The academy's business model centres on the concept of sustainability, and includes an incubation stage during which students operate as a business while being coached.

Last month, Mirzaie visited Mdletshe and her four students at the academy to share ideas, tips and advice on how to run a sustainable business.

The McKinsey "Delivering Through Diversity" report found that there's a link between diversity and a company's financial performance. Gender diversity is directly related to effectiveness in leadership, productivity, value creation and financial success. But the retail industry, despite being female-driven, remains an area that's under-represented by women in managerial and leadership positions.

McKinsey 'Delivering Through Diversity' found that gender diversity is directly related to effectiveness in leadership, productivity, value creation and financial success

A glance at Edcon's website shows eight male executive managers and one female, and a board, elected and appointed by shareholders, comprising five men and one woman. The Foschini Group shows a slightly better picture: four men and four women make up its operating board.

Nonhlanhla Shange, 37, was discouraged from pursuing a career in fashion by her father, who saw no future in it. Instead, she became a government administrator. But, 20 years later, with the dream of one day supplying big retailers like The Space with her designs, she enrolled at the Fezile Fashion Skills Academy.

"As a child, I loved sewing, My grandmother was a seamstress and my mother a nurse who loved sewing after hours. I'd take off-cuts and make beautiful garments for my dolls," says Shange.

Based in Empangeni, she drives 340km every Saturday to attend the courses in basic pattern-making, advanced construction and technology and applied design at the KwaMashu academy.

Kwapeng studied at Lisof before joining Stoned Cherrie. She had to take out a student loan to pay for her end-of-year-range. "Most black students dropped out because they couldn't afford to complete their studies," she says.

Twenty-five students have enrolled for the three-month, part-time clothing skills programme at Fezile Fashion Skills Academy. Five have completed the programme. Many drop out because personal and family demands prove too great.

"Family responsibility is linked to culture and tradition, similar to Middle-Eastern countries where I'm from," says Mirzaie.  "It's believed men should be the main breadwinners, and women can work but need to be home at a certain time. Female role models need to share their stories — that it is possible to be successful and look after your family."

Mirzaie says as a Sweden-based company H&M takes into account the territory it is in and the laws that govern it, but tends to operate differently. "In Scandinavian countries, female empowerment is well regulated by law," she says.

Commenting on the role of women in the work space, Kwapeng says: "Women bring unique qualities and skills, like the ability to nurture relationships, pay attention to detail and, when it comes to women and children's fashion, practical understanding of which products are critical.

"We have first-hand knowledge of consumer behaviour. But, like men, women also possess strategic and critical thinking, negotiating skills and influence.

"Although there are a fair number of women contributing to retail, the black perspective is still under represented in key functions," she says.