SAfrican Fashion World Gives Recession A Run For Its Money With 'Chic-Onomics'

by Tanya Thomas on Sep 8 2009 10:59 AM

What to wear? A tortuous question even without the added burden of an economic crisis that has designers and shoppers reaching deep for creativity, without having to reach for their credit cards.

South African designers have not escaped the economic crisis which has dimmed the sparkle at fashion weeks from Milan to Paris and New York, and are having to use all their artistic savvy to keep clients happy.

Buzz words such as "recessionista" and "chic-onomics" have swept the global fashion industry, pointing to the desire to look good in troubled times without breaking the bank.

"We are going through an economic recession, not a creative recession," top South African designer David Tlale told AFP on the sidelines of the recent Cape Town Fashion Week, where he said the key was looking expensive without being expensive.

Sparkling rhinestones, sequins, metallic gold, ruffles and accessories brightened up outfits while classics in black and white and muted tones take over from in-for-a-season styles.

"People are toning down colour, toning down fabrication. There is a focus on luxury and wanting to look expensive," said the popular local designer.

"The thing that has changed is the spending power has gone slightly down." While practical colours and cuts dominated the ramps, cheery acid brights of pink and yellow interspersed with muted lilacs, greens and blues shot through collections to uplift and reinvigorate.

In South Africa, the economic crisis has hit an already struggling clothing and textile industry which employs some 180,000 people and has long battled to compete with cheap imports from China.

"When countries go through a depression, the arts is one area that uplifts us. It is almost like an escapism. So there was a lot of beautiful fabrics and colour," said African Fashion International chairwoman Precious Moloi-Motsepe.

"I think designers have been very, very smart in that they realise people are now looking for value. They want to spend the same amount of money for more so it's very important that the collections are saleable, wearable and there is value in them."

Top South African designer Gavin Rajah, who regularly shows in Paris, drew his inspiration from the 1980s, using romantic punk, denim and flashy finishes to perk up the utilitarian fabric which he calls "body armour for tough times."

The 1980s brought Madonna, AIDS, famine and debt crises. South Africa was fighting apartheid, and fashion and creativity were largely locked-in under the calvinistic repression of the white, Afrikaans government, he said.

"It was a time that people looked to strange spaces for creative inspiration. Some spaces often considered negative actually gave birth to beautiful invention," said Rajah.

Italian fashion empress Elsa Schiaparelli once said that "in difficult times fashion is always outrageous".

For now, fashion is revisiting the zeitgeist of the 1920s, 1940s and 1980s where daring new expression, colours, metallics, frugalism and pseudo-luxury burst out of darkness and gloom.

"Recession is only a season, and those who are wise will survive it," said the designer Tlale.