It's a little-known fact that when Dr Precious Moloi Motsepe bought the events company that would become African Fashion International (AFI) in 2006, she and her husband Patrice Motsepe had, in fact, wanted to buy Edcon and turn one of the country’s biggest retail chains into a South Africa-first department store.

Mining magnate Motsepe had wanted to diversify his investments, as well as create a platform to develop the South African fashion industry. But as fate would have it, Bain Capital beat the duo to the deal and Moloi Motsepe found herself exploring other options.

They acquired eventing company Leisureworx, and what took shape was
a platform to market and sell South African fashion through fashion weeks around the country. At one stage, AFI was staging five events a year and Moloi Motsepe was in the front row of almost every single one of the fashion shows herself.

“I have really only missed a handful of shows,” she says. “It was important for me to support all the designers that were joining us on this journey.” One of the highlights of the AFI calendar soon became Africa Fashion Week, where designers from all over the continent showcased their designs, but the relentless fashion-week calendar proved to be unsustainable. AFI now stages only two events — Cape Town and Johannesburg Fashion Weeks — with African designers absorbed into these.

Probably one of AFI’s biggest coups was to secure the partnership of
Mercedes-Benz South Africa. Globally, Mercedes-Benz is the sponsor of every fashion week that counts, and its sponsorship of the AFI events was the stamp of approval that told the industry that Moloi Motsepe and her team were here to stay.

So what gives her the greatest thrill — 10 years down the line? “I am most proud of the young designers that we showcased first, who are now established names in the business,” she says. Designers including David Tlale, Thula Sindi, Rich Mnisi, Eleni Labrou, and Tuelo Nguyuza all have AFI to thank for their big breaks. “I love hearing people talking about designers, and the fact that many of these people are now household names,” Moloi Motsepe reflects.
“It’s also been a privilege to be part of the era in which we’ve experienced the phenomenon of Africa rising. We’ve seen the emerging of a black middle class where fashion is a big part of the lifestyle of these new consumers and, at the same time, the world has turned its gaze on what African design has to offer.”
It certainly must have helped to have some significant international connections, because Moloi Motsepe has built up an impressive little black book of fashion influencers — and invited them to experience and spread the word about the rise of the fashion designers in Africa.

Image: Aubrey Jonsson / One League

One of the best brains in the business, Suzy Menkes, came to South Africa as
a guest of AFI and hosted a fashion talk shop about the local industry. She reported on what was happening here in the International Herald Tribune, where she was fashion editor. Menkes is now International Editor of Vogue Online. The late Franca Sozzani of Italian Vogue realised that designers from Africa had a lot to contribute and, through AFI, the magazine showcased local designers alongside the best in the world. Fern Mallis, who created New York Fashion Week, was another guest of AFI, and left saying she had been amazed to find African fashion was about so much more than beautiful prints, and that our designers could stand on their own.

A lot of Moloi Motsepe’s efforts were aimed at changing perceptions about South African fashion: “I was most proud when I heard people talking about
‘a designer from Africa’, rather than ‘an African designer’,” she says.

While AFI offers designers the opportunity to retail their designs at its shows, Moloi Motsepe regrets that no AFI designer has yet enjoyed commercial success on the global stage. However, one of her protégés, David Tlale, has shown in New York, and several others are starting to connect with the big department-store buyers through opportunities created by AFI. “But this is
a tough business. No one takes a designer seriously until you’ve proved you’re in it for the long haul,” Moloi Motsepe says.

And the long haul is what AFI is all about. Reflecting on the growth of the industry, Moloi Motsepe says the South African fashion and accessories world is now a €2-billion business. But there’s still a lot of work to do: the fashion industry has shed 120 000 jobs due to Chinese imports and there’s still plenty of room for government to introduce tariffs and rebates to turn the situation around. If anyone has the ear of those who can make these changes, it’s Moloi Motsepe — and she’s working those contacts.

But for now, it’s time to celebrate: a few years back, Moloi Motsepe bought an entire collection of international fashion in gold at a charity auction, and the clothes have never been shown. Later this March, a retrospective of AFI designers, all in silver, will be showcased alongside the best the world has to offer. It’s a picture Moloi Motsepe hopes is here to stay.

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