I have wonderful vivid memories of those heady days of SA Fashion Week (SAFW). Lights, cameras and lots of action. Beautiful bold images of elaborate productions and cutting-edge ideas from Clive Rundle, Strangelove, Black Coffee, Row-G, all bubbling over with glamour and excitement and capturing the imagination of this journalist, even if only because at the time I was also new on the scene, or maybe it was the dawning of a new Millennium.
Most of these unique minds have successfully weathered the local market and fashion storms to become celebrated icons with sizable cult followings, others not so lucky but no less fondly etched in our memories.
Of the designers, it was always Rahim Rawjee whose enthusiasm and charm was of the most endearing. His sharp, powerful silhouettes everything but revealing of his exuberant, warm, persona.
His first editorial coverage appeared in Elle magazine in 2000. “I went to see Dion Chang when he was still the fashion director. That was my first dabble in design,” says Rawjee.
“The first incarnation of Row-G happened around the same time as the Conceptual designers like the Antwerp Six,” recalls Dion Chang. “Rahim was and still is a master of this — very architectural construction, good shoulders. Very ‘out there’”. He was also totally ahead of his time when you think of current ideas around experiential marketing. Rahim pays fine attention to detail at every step of the way — from his invitations on card made with the finest linen, to the final product.”
Alas, after only a couple of years of adding an edge to women’s wardrobes, he put down his pencil and scissors and all but vanished. However, he had something up his sleeve and after spending time out “growing up, improving my business acumen”, he and his brother Shaheed combined forces in 2007 and plotted a comeback. Realising the huge potential of the rapidly expanding male fashion market, they had no plans to do frocks, instead a world-class, made-to-measure luxury menswear brand. Row-G opened its doors in November 2012.
“How's this for luxury?” Rahim asks as he hands me a silvery, incredibly soft and luxurious swatch of silk cloth from Scabal of Savile Row. “It has microscopic diamond fragments added in the weaving process as soon as the cloth has been cleaned and combed and just before it is spun. Diamonds are a man’s best friend,” he enthuses in a soft Canadian accent — Rahim was born in SA but schooled in Toronto where he also graduated from the International Academy of Merchandising and Design before returning to SA in the late 90s.
This summer fabric will surely set you apart from the crowd, and although “a little bit rock ‘n roll”, in Rahim’s good hands I guarantee that you’ll still be taken seriously in any boardroom.
The decor in Row-G’s second floor reception and measuring rooms are best described as quietly observed luxury, and the goods, all finely crafted. Rahim is more ‘street’ though. It’s a combination of his personality and effortless style that, despite the juxtaposition makes him look perfectly at home.
When I meet him, he is wearing engineered Levi’s jeans by Junya Watanabe bought on a visit to Dover Street Market, London. His super fitted jacket is also from Levi’s, but I don’t immediately recognise it as being part of any collection. I later establish that he pulled it apart and tailored it to suit his shape and style.
With over four years of R&D behind the ‘new’ Row-G brand, Rahim is an expert on tailoring and his knowledge of fine cloth is so seductively impressive, he will have you signed up and in the fitting room in no time. “Look at these cloths for summer. How incredible are these crazy colours. Super dandy. Imagine a sports jacket in that. Wool, silk linen. Very graphic. Very crisp. By Loro Piana. Super lightweight.
“Our jackets took 40 iterations before I was happy with Jacket 1. The construction, the cut … We fitted it on hundreds of people and body types. Eventually we developed two cuts. Obviously not everyone in the world is going to fit into them but it’s kind of a good symbiosis between the Row-G aesthetic and silhouette and the public, and who it can fit. And even that gets adjusted. We made a recent tweak to fit with some of the current fashions, so they are a bit shorter now and the sleeves are a bit more fitted.”
Rahim is totally hands on. He is there before your information heads downstairs to the professional team and their state-of-the-art machines, taking measurements and noting the unique details of your body shape. He is also there pinning the toile of your suit at your second fitting, and the third, and at the final visit.
“When I’m pinning that last pin at the last fitting, it’s not there because you generally want the area taken in but because that’s where you want that amount taken in. Only I would know that.”
He describes his early designs as “purposefully created and very tailored”, and applies the same approach to his new menswear. “I tailor everything. I tailored my denim jacket. I pulled it apart and reworked it. I was never really the ball gown kind of guy or couture gown guy. I love looking at them and admire the designers that do that but my aesthetic is more sharp and severe, strong lines, defined silhouette, powerful.”
So, why did he take a break from fashion, literally to open a petrol station?
He laughs. “I needed to make a move. The industry at the time wasn’t serving me. I had a handful of clients, movers and shakers in the industry. Some amazing SA style icons like Bouffont agency director: Ariane Basson but not enough to sustain a business. I had to make a decision, either I was a glorified dressmaker and make matric dresses to pay the bills or I might as well have become an accountant.”
So he joined the family to learn a bit more about business. “My family’s businesses are very diverse. All the while I knew I was going to open up an emporium or sorts.”
“The timing was right in 2011 to open Row-G made-to-measure. Everything was about customization, personalization. All that disposable clothing, nobody wanted anymore. The new luxury was personalization. Not the ‘H’ or ‘LV’ on your belt. It was about the personalized experience and perfectly tailored cloths. It wasn’t so much about the label anymore, it was about perfect craftsmanship.”
A recent campaign poster in the lift lobby uses a portrait of Marquis Sommi by Polish-born Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, whose name is dropped into the conversation so casually as if she was an old friend. Turns out that his uncle knows her granddaughter Victoria very well so he was granted permission to use this dapper gent as the face of Row-G.
“Artists need artisans. The two are co-dependent of each other, which is what this campaign is about.”
This idea and love of Art Deco is also to be seen in the design of the showroom. “The huge chandelier in the measuring room was chosen from a picture of that exact chandelier I cut out from a Wallpaper magazine 20 years ago and kept in my scrap book of all the things I ever wanted. I didn’t know if it was going to be in my house or bathroom or showroom but I wanted that fitting. Now it’s in my measuring room. It is hand crafted and comes from the Czech Republic. I’m also a huge fan of French furniture designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann from the Art Deco period. The two club chairs in purple velvet are modeled after one of his designs.”
Row-G also offers a full bespoke service but it comes at a price and is very time consuming. A tailor on Savile Row takes on average six months to complete a full bespoke service. “We offer this for people whose bodies are maybe not as symmetrical or proportionate as our standard block are. But I might still get a standard model-size 40 coming in and requesting full bespoke. Some of my clients do made-to-measure and then have bespoke features like the hand-stitched button holes.”
With suits starting at R15000, his customers range from private school matric students wanting the ultimate suit for their dance, to bank CEOs and “even Obama”. Anyone who understands craftsmanship and personalization.
Row-G is not just a tailoring house, but also very much fashion driven and style driven. However, as Rahim points out: “While the jackets are shorter on the catwalks I’m certainly not going to put a short jacket on someone if it doesn’t suit them. It’s not about trends but what works for you. Trends is not the first point of departure. We can then add the trend in the colour, the cloth or lapel.
“Look at Jada Pinkett Smith or Eva Longoria, they are both short people but always look statuesque or Amazonian,” he explains with the tunes of Grace Jones playing in the background, “because they know what fits and what proportions work for them.”
His personal aesthetic references the 40s, 70s and 80s. “A mash between the three. I love the shoulders. It’s not about the width but the well-defined shoulder. Dynasty was my favorite TV show. I even have darts in my Hanes T-Shirts.”
Forever in search of other creative outlets, the Row-G experience now includes Hotel QSL (Quince Street Lofts). Seeing a gap in the market for an affordable yet luxurious hotel experience in the area, the brothers opened Phase 1 with 10 rooms, with 37 more to follow and a fully-equipped luxury penthouse with butler and chauffeur service.
His architect and friend is Pieter Greyvensteyn, a senior lecturer at Tukkies who shares a similar aesthetic to and also loves Japanese architect Tadao Ando and Ruhlmann. Interior designer Patricia Verona has helped with the interiors.
“Row-G is part of me in the luxury sense but the other part of me is very street and very Dover Street Market. The hotel interiors are more raw concrete and edgy and the luxury comes in the free mini bar and the super high tread count linen, customized mattresses, and free pressing service. Smart TVs, high speed internet, docking stations, free wine between 5pm and 6pm each night, breakfast in bed from neighboring Salvation Cafe at 44 Stanley Avenue.”
Starting at R800 per night, some of the rooms are very pod-like with beds build in snuggly into corners, while others are more roomy. “Not everyone can afford a R20000 suit so this is a new outlet.”
Row-G made-to-measure shirts start at R2200 depending on the fabric. There are three consultations, taking of measurements for the toile (mock-up) and choosing cloth; second is toile fitting; third is a fitting with the shirt made and for any fine tweaks or finishing off.
Suits start at R20000 again depending on cloth. Expect three to four consultations.