Jacques van der Watt's latest Black Coffee collection at SA Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2024
Jacques van der Watt's latest Black Coffee collection at SA Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2024
Image: Eunice Driver Photography for SA Fashion Week

Whether it's thought-provoking design or innovative fabrication, Jacques van der Watt's Black Coffee has been a staple in South Africa's fashion world. Taking to the runway again this season at South African Fashion Week, the designer continues the brand's ethos of hard work and garments bursting at the seams with stories. 

With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Van der Watt still scrambles to think of one pivotal moment in his design career, opting instead to celebrate past achievements and charging towards a future of innovation. 

This point of view was pivotal to Van der Watt's latest collection that explored what people will wear in future worlds. We sat down with Black Coffee's head honcho after his latest show to better understand how the past has continued to propel the politics of his fashion, how he dives into present-day inspirations, and what the future of the local design world has in store. 

What is the process of creating a Black Coffee garment? 

It's different with every collection. Sometimes I need the main idea right at the beginning and sometimes it's more about the construction as well as the underlying theme that comes out in how the clothes look. 

You collaborated with Isuzu again this year. Tell us more about this partnership. 

It was fantastic that they asked me. It means they were happy to work with me again which is always a great thing. Their marketing team is young, fun and bubbly and it's a brand that feels so South African, though it's actually Japanese. 

Can you run us through what this new collection explores?

Adrift is quite futuristic. My starting point was renderings done by a group of architects for a proposed flying city as an answer to the climate crisis, lack of land and global warming. There's also the fact that many cities have to pump water because the levels are rising. 

I started thinking that if you need to do these high-end developments, then why don't you just float them on the water? I thought it was just a wacky idea and I started doing research. There are about 15 of them that are already in development, obviously in places such as Dubai, but they are so fascinating. They look like spaceships on the water, and I thought: OK, they're gonna need clothes!

Model walks the runway for Black Coffee at SA Fashion Week.
Model walks the runway for Black Coffee at SA Fashion Week.
Image: Eunice Driver Photography for SA Fashion Week

Do you see it happening in South Africa? 

I think it's a status thing for some countries, so we are quite behind. You can see it in all the countries with leading architecture where it seems like they had to get on the bandwagon otherwise they would look bad. 

South Africa is becoming a cultural hotspot. What do you believe is limiting our design from becoming an industry leader in the architectural field? 

I think people have always been looking at us, but we haven't had the strongest output in terms of large businesses that go abroad. But we've always had a deep pool of truly authentic talent and I think for that reason people never stop being fascinated with South Africa. We've got that “it” thing. 

You mentioned how you resonate with the cultural aspects of Isuzu as a collaborator. Do you find that repeats itself in your work throughout the years? 

I often play with a duality between Japan and Africa. If you look at ancient things, especially the fabric prints and our repetitive geometry, I feel that explains this crossover in terms of influences. That's why I think we see so many local men love wearing kimonos. Way back, there must have been some connection in terms of influences.

Jacques van der Watt
Jacques van der Watt
Image: Eunice Driver Photography for SA Fashion Week

South Africa celebrates 30 years of democracy that falls into this current fashion season. How do you celebrate that freedom? 

I think our political freedom is important, especially for me as a gay man with an adopted daughter. Sometimes I have a fright when I realise how recent it is and how radically different it would have been if I had been born just a decade earlier. My formative years would have been so different, and I don't think I would have been the same designer. If we didn't have democracy, the South African fashion landscape would have been so different. Just like this vibrancy we have been talking about, as we get this more refined South African look. 

How have you approached this? 

I've always been concerned with having an aesthetic that is African. Though this collection is not my most African, a lot of people have said they see a bit of Xhosa in my creations. [Designer] Maria McCloy teasingly says, “Afrikaner does Xhosa”. I initially I thought she was reprimanding me but no, she was saying it's great. 

I grew up in the Eastern Cape, so it's always in my psyche. That's why there's always cream and black in my collections — it's part of the repetitive details I play with. I don't try to make it like that but it's always there. 

This interview originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle


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