Adapt or die: How SA designers conquered the challenges of Covid-19

The pandemic hasn't killed the local fashion industry, it's just reconfigured it, writes Mary Corrigall

28 March 2021 - 00:00 By Mary Corrigall
Looks by Thebe Magugu.
Looks by Thebe Magugu.
Image: Kristin-Lee Moolman

Fashion may have died in 2020. Or at least that was the recurring sentiment driving articles in the US media, pronouncing the demise of the industry in that country.

Isolated at home, people only wanted to wear tracksuit bottoms, the universal bottom line.

With department stores closing and the release of collections and entire seasons put on pause, it certainly seemed that the entire wheel of fashion had not just come to a halt but had fallen off completely.

Covid-19 was largely to blame but, in truth, the wheel of fashion had been, for many big international designers and labels, turning way too fast - with sometimes up to eight seasons a year.

Social distancing and homebound lifestyles also turned a stark light on the function of fashion, which could be loosely defined as fleeting styles in tune with market trends.

If entire seasonal collections were put on hold due to the pandemic, the seasonal cycle driving the production and consumption of fashion had surely come to an end.

Certainly, shipping cheap, mass-produced clothing from developing countries was proving a barrier to fast fashion.

But deeper problems beset the industry too: an existential crisis about the function of fashion hovered like a dark cloud before a storm. Were we wearing fashion for others, rather than ourselves? Of course, for every 100 tracksuit-wearers there was an Insta-narcissist snapping selfies in high-end designer wear - you didn't need to leave the house to show off anymore.

Where did this all leave the South African fashion industry, which remains in its nascence and was already under pressure due to economic pressures taking hold before the pandemic?

DRAMATIC REFLECTION

Issues around sustainability and more environmentally-friendly practices were already disrupting the fast wheel of fashion, says Nicola Cooper, founder of Nicola Cooper and Associates, a fashion-trend research consultancy based in Cape Town.

"The fashion industry is at a space of cognisance and dramatic reflection that has generated a critical awareness of the full fashion chain. Disruptions in manufacturing, shipping and other processes caused by Covid-19 escalated and fast-tracked dynamic change," she says.

For small, independent designers, lockdowns and social distancing meant they had to work fast to adapt.

After the president announced the first lockdown, Joburg-based designer Lezanne Viviers "had four days to comprehend how to prepare and strategise for a situation none of us could really comprehend and still don't fully grasp".

"We managed to cut and prepare enough work for each team member to sew from home for the lockdown. Intuitively, we cut garments that are easy to wear, versatile, tactile and align with a slow-wear atmosphere," she observed in her introduction to her autumn/winter 2020 collection, comprised of what could be described as glam-pyjamas and edgy tracksuits.

"I knew it would be the year of change, the year of metamorphosis. We had no other option than to adapt and change, or you got left behind," says Viviers.

A Viviers design.
A Viviers design.
Image: Danielle Smith
A look by Rich Mnisi.
A look by Rich Mnisi.
Image: Zander Opperman

When Covid hit, many local designers lost an entire season, says Annette Pringle-Kölsch, director of The Fashion Agent, a Joburg-based agency that represents some of SA's most promising young designers, among them Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi and the new rising label MmusoMaxwell.

The agency sells their designs to small boutiques in the US, Asia and Europe. "Some orders were cancelled and some concept stores wouldn't confirm an order," says Pringle-Kölsch.

Designers were quick to get into creating designer masks and selling them. For Mnisi this provided the ideal marketing tool - with his logo emblazoned on them and distilling his aesthetic, he was able to reach new audiences who weren't aware of his label. Building on this look and attention, he produced a branded knitwear collection that proved highly successful.

"Rich hit the hammer on the nail with the knitwear, knit pants, loungewear, and it was flying. This collection really saved his business," says Pringle-Kölsch.

A Rich Mnisi face mask.
A Rich Mnisi face mask.
Image: Supplied

As with Viviers' autumn/winter line, Mnisi's knitwear collection was luxe loungewear, comfortable, easy-to-wear, appealing to lockdown living. Guillotine, by Lisa Jaffe, offered a hoodie dress, viscose jumpsuits and tracksuit pants in linen.

In this way a sort of "non-trend" trend in fashion had unwittingly emerged. Fashion was alive!

"The 'stay-home' aesthetic has permeated the consumer demand that spans virtually all age groups and markets," says Cooper.

OPPORTUNITIES TO BE FOUND ONLINE

More significantly, however, she suggests that this loungewear trend presented a reversal in the fashion cycle, with designers responding more closely to consumer needs. Being limited to communicating their brands online, more choices also became available.

"For far too many years the fashion industry has adopted an if you build it they will come approach. Now, with the development of the internet, social media, e-commerce and m-commerce, our consumers have rapid access to products."

Those designers who struggled to harness social media such as Instagram to promote their new collections suffered. Some were already in trouble and others closed their physical stores - Black Coffee's 44 Stanley shop in Joburg, Selfi's store on Loop Street in Cape Town. Margo Molyneux closed her Roeland Street store and her business.

As much as online savvy has counted for the continued survival of many fashion brands, for the local independent designers in-person relationships are essential to their businesses.

"Face-to-face encounters mean that you hear and feel the needs of your client, their body and the experience they wish to have through their clothing. You have the opportunity to suggest new styles they would never have considered if they only chose something online," says Viviers.

"The two most important aspects of clothes are tactility and materiality, as well as fit. You get neither of these from Instagram. Instagram is merely a platform to inform your clients that you have worked on something new and invite them to come and experience it for themselves."

Real-life fashion shows will remain important, says Pringle-Kölsch. "You get immediate feedback from buyers and this kind of presentation really helps showcase a brand in the best possible way," she says.

That said, Pringle-Kölsch concedes that a fashion film has equal impact in relaying the story behind a collection.

When Magugu was unable to participate in a Paris fashion week in September 2020, he made a film instead, titled Counter Intelligence. The collection was a huge hit and Magugu had his best season in terms of sales, says Pringle-Kölsch.

WATCH | Thebe Magugu's fashion film, 'Counter Intelligence'

Fashion films have always been in existence as an ancillary to ramp shows, but during Covid they have become the most powerful tool for designers. British Vogue declared 2020 as the beginning of the golden era of the fashion film.

Given that renewal is part of the fashion cycle DNA, it is perhaps not unexpected that fashion didn't die in 2020, but adapted. The new ways of working and the trends that defined that year are set to continue into 2021. Not unexpectedly, a focus on health, wellness and sustainability will be sustained, says Cooper. Slow fashion will become further entrenched.

Viviers foresees slow fashion moving apace with a different kind of fast fashion. "Half of us are going even more bespoke, more personalised and more focused on creating objects of beauty, made with integrity, that are worth waiting for and investing in. The other half are consuming even more, especially online, as a result of perhaps emptiness and despair. For those markets, there will still be the other side of the industry of mass production and retail,  to feed that need of greed, emptiness and over-consumption."


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