We need a Menswear evolution, while we’re still ahead

The progressively gender-bending ways embraced by many contemporary African menswear designers – evidenced in part by the output at the recent South African Menswear Week – may still be novel in the context of a relatively conservative continent, but sooner or later the menswear industry will need a new act, writes MX SANDISO NGUBANE.

In an interview with businessoffashion.com, Nigerian fashion designer Mr Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orange Culture, recalls: “The local backlash was insane at first, but I honestly think being received positively internationally helped change the view of the brand back on the continent.” Orange Culture is one of the most progressive African fashion brands, with an appetite for moving in the general direction of global fashion – ditching tradition, and often bypassing gender norms with clothing that is perfectly unisex.

It is an industry that has sought to cash in on our evolving understanding of gender, sexuality and the now commonly accepted reality of gender fluidity. The trend is underscored by an ever-increasing visibility of gender non-conformists in popular culture, but also, and perhaps most importantly, gender and LGBTI activists working hard to achieve equality, and to push for the legal recognition of the rights of those who identify outside of the gender binary. It is not surprising, then, that the likes of Mr Oke-Lawal – whose work flies in the face gender normativity – would face a backlash. Nigeria and the continent at large, after all, are not the most progressive of places when it comes to this kind of thing.

At the most recent SA Menswear Week, I walked the runway as a model at the request of the designers from Merwe Mode. I walked down the runway in a white embellished see-through dress, and heels. As soon as I emerged from backstage, it was hard to ignore the ululation from an approving crowd. Still, I can’t view the reception in isolation from the reality that as social norms would have it, dresses are for women. At the risk of sounding negative, I think the reception had more to do with my being in a dress than it did with celebrating the designer’s work. Albeit not so novel, I suspect it might have been amusing for some to see a male model – me – in a dress. I relate this in the context of SA Menswear Week’s third year anniversary, a period that has seen the showcase growing from a much-needed one for the development of this previously largely ignored category, to one that is arguably the most relevant and increasingly boosting the bottom line. Citing Euromonitor research, the Sunday Times reports that the menswear market was worth R390-billion globally, when SA Menswear Week started three years ago, and is predicted to leap to R445-billion by 2020.

Designers that have showcased at SA Menswear Week, including the aforementioned Mr Oke-Lawal’s Orange Culture (although not at this year’s show), Rich Mnisi, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Nicholas Coutts, Jenevieve Lyons, Alexandra Blank and others, have pushed the boundaries of an industry that had become quite uninteresting.

At the risk of sounding negative, I think the reception had more to do with my being in a dress than it did with celebrating the designer’s work.

Fashion editor-turned-designer Mr Chu Suwannapha’s debut with Chulaap in 2015 was an introduction to a label with a global feel but one that is distinctly African at heart, without being a stereotypical, boring African print party many brands often fall victim to in their endeavours to make African prints desirable. To be honest, I think many designers hide behind prints to deliver work that is mediocre at best, so it was quite refreshing to see collections that are interesting in spite of the prints.

The work of the designers I mention has often generated interest from global media, and blogs based in Europe and the US often beat the rest of us to getting the rights to exclusive publication of these designers’ seasonal Lookbooks, which ought to tell you just how much interest they are generating on a global scale. It is hard to ignore that the intensifying interest from overseas coincides with the establishment of the continent’s first menswear focused fashion week.

I’ve been covering fashion for almost a decade now, and while there have been moments of brilliance and excitement – the arrival on the scene of designers like Mr Laduma Ngxokolo, among others – no single event can claim to have put together a roster of brands that are as progressive, and creatively inspired as SA Menswear Week, and it’s not just the gender bending designers I am referring to.

No single event can claim to have put together a roster of brands that are as progressive, and creatively inspired as SA Menswear Week, and it’s not just the gender bending designers I am referring to.

Streetwear brands like Sol-Sol, 2Bop, Young And Lazy, and Simon Deporess have over the past three years been invited to participate, injecting a fresh edge to the line-up. It is not just their mere presence, but the inventive collaborations they’ve sought, working with stylists and other creatives to deliver shows that are far better to watch than some shows by more established designers at any of our other God-knows how-many fashion weeks where things have become quite monotonous.

However, the nature of fashion is such that it is ever-changing, and relying on the inventiveness of designers, not matter how big their names or exciting their work, will not be a saving grace for any fashion week platform going forward. It is encouraging that the organisers of SA Menswear Week are on record as saying they want to go beyond just being a showcase platform, to become an engine for the growth of the brands they work with.

Discussion of future plans is off the record, so I am not at liberty to discuss them here, but what one must point out is that the novelty of progressive menswear will soon wear out, and the reality that the concept of fashion week itself needs an upgrade will set in.

To be blunt, the way fashion weeks are set up belongs last century, where consumers of fashion knew no better than to wait for the next season to cop whatever went down the runway. In a world where images from the shows are beamed across smartphone screens instantly, by the time, six months later, collections are delivered to retail, consumers have already moved on to the next exciting thing.

To be blunt, the way fashion weeks are set up belongs last century, where consumers of fashion knew no better than to wait for the next season to cop whatever went down the runway.

A few years ago, Tom Ford, for one, tried to combat this by banning smartphones at his shows, but still, this is a futile exercise. Instant gratification is a reality that not even this fashion god can fight or prevent. Consumers want things now, and fashion has been evading this fact for far too long to its own detriment.

Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall 2016 shoppable show, and other ‘see now, buy now’ models that have been tested by brands such as Burberry, and many younger brands popping up online on platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest are a few examples of how fashion brands are trying to catch up in a world where technology has disrupted business models across sectors.

In South Africa, where the benefits of showcasing at a fashion week can be heavily outweighed by a need to focus on business, fashion week platforms that have any interest in the growth of the industry will need to change how they operate in fundamental ways.

To do this, they will have to consider the reality of technology’s effects on consumption habits, and the fact that fashion weeks are no longer the trade shows they used to be. The seasonal showcase has been upended by the wrath of fast fashion, and something more immediate needs to be put into place.

For SA Menswear Week this needs to happen before the novelty of Orange Culture, and the new generation of designers who are challenging perceptions of gender while delivering impressive work wears out.

Surely, beyond the backlash Orange Culture faced for its gender-bending, as Mr Oke-Lawal says, it would be much more delightful to read about how it became a lucrative luxury brand. In my mind, it is the business of any fashion week on the continent to exist for the industry’s amelioration. Heaven knows we don’t need another fashion party.

All images Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

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