Black Coffee AW '23 collection showcased at SA Fashion Week recently.
Black Coffee AW '23 collection showcased at SA Fashion Week recently.
Image: Supplied

Quick question: when you think about SA Fashion Week, what comes to mind? What about Lagos Fashion Week, or this weekend’s African Fashion International Fashion Week Joburg?

The obvious answer is — well — fashion, right? Models sashaying down a runway, and celebrities industry figures and influencers competing for front-row real estate? You bet, but what we often lose sight of is that fashion weeks are more than mere spectacle. They serve as a platform for designers and brands to showcase what they have to offer for the coming season.

Over the years, many participants have decided to make their presentations available for purchase almost immediately after the shows — which I would say is a great idea, considering the instant gratification culture we live in. This is especially true for African brands whose wares aren’t necessarily going to be as hotly anticipated as, say, a Louis Vuitton. But I digress.

The concept of fashion week traces its roots back to the 1940s when one Eleanor Lambert decided it would be worth clustering the disparate shows that designers held in their ateliers and boutiques into a single, consolidated schedule and called it “press week”. The idea was to boost American fashion’s standing on the global stage as publications such as Vogue paid very little attention to what was going on in the US as opposed to France.

The idea took off, and by 1993, Fern Mallis consolidated the shows into one location. Meanwhile, the idea of a “fashion week” was already going strong in places such as London, but it wasn’t until 1997 that Lucilla Booyzen established SA Fashion Week.

Through her efforts, we were introduced to designers who have since become household names and brands that have sprung up and disappeared over the past almost 25 years. Many other similar events have followed: Cape Town Fashion Week, Durban Fashion Week, and many other smaller, quite negligible, things along the way.

Around 2007 came African Fashion International’s Joburg Fashion Week and elsewhere on the continent, Style House Files founder Omoyemi Akerele founded Lagos Fashion Week in 2011.

If you ask any designer on the continent about any of our fashion weeks you will find the answers differ vastly in terms of the value these events create for their brands. For some, it’s an unnecessary, expensive exercise while for others it’s a platform they relish, but what I think many of these events have struggled with is defining themselves.

Whereas New York Fashion Week has come to be known for grown-up elegance, London has always been known as its more quirky cousin and Paris, the couture capital. Yes, things ebb and flow, but these identities generally stick, and everyone within fashion is well aware of what to expect from each one. I haven’t covered fashion weeks for quite a while owing to fatigue and then the pandemic, but on my return to the recent SA Fashion Week and looking at Lagos Fashion Week for work purposes, it became clear to me that both are carving out niches that are setting them apart.

SA Fashion Week seems to have somewhat established itself as the London of the continent: a playground for emerging talent

At SA Fashion Week AW23 shows last month the likes of Artclub & Friends, and the bevy of designers presenting under the event’s “Scouting Menswear” banner took to the runway with a streetwear edge. ERRE, Munkus, Amanda Laird Cherry, Black Coffee and others presented elevated ready-to-wear fashion I can imagine anyone wearing. Here and there, and true to SA Fashion Week’s long history of nurturing new talent, there were glimpses of the future. Designers like Fikile Sokhulu — who I fully expect to become a household name — and brands like Michael Ludwig and Bam Collective, showcased the kind of quirk and — in Sokhulu’s case, specifically — thoughtful design that makes them worth keeping an eye on.

This is to say, SA Fashion Week seems to have somewhat established itself as the London of the continent: a playground for emerging talent, and a platform for retail-ready, everyday wear. Lagos, on the other hand, is being described by the likes of Vogue as “Africa’s Leading Fashion Week”. It’s not hard to see why.

There’s a polish that emanates from its runways, giving one the sense that this is a platform that wants to be known as the hub of African luxury fashion. Now in its 12th year, with brands including MaXhosa, Emmy Kasbit, Andrea Iyamah and IAMISIGO on its programme, Lagos Fashion Week is proving itself as a “launch pad for emerging African designers who have their sights on global growth”, as said Vogue magazine’s Ezreen Benisaan so eloquently put it.

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