Inside-out : South African fashion designers' sewing success.
A fundamental change in the global and textile industries took place on 1 January 2005, when the global quantitative quotas were abolished. International retail buyers are now able to reduce the number of their international suppliers, and can act on a preference to buy from suppliers anywhere in the world, offering the cheapest price on international orders. South Africa had been experiencing growth in cheaper imports, mostly at the lower end of the market, since 1994 when the political arena in South Africa changed, resulting in a reduction of its tariffs faster than the World Trade Organisation required. The post-2005 environment has seen a rapid increase in imports into South Africa, predominantly from Asia. This has resulted in numerous South African firms in the clothing and textile industries having to reduce their labour, outsource part of their production, or close down altogether, due to their inability to compete with their Asian counterparts. One area of the clothing and textile industries in South Africa that has the potential to assist in the sustainability of these industries is the development and growth of South African design content. Relatively new to South Africa is the growth in and recognition of South African fashion designers entering the market, which has resulted in the heightened visibility and activity of numerous inter-related industries, all servicing South African fashion, such as: model agencies, hair-stylists, make-up artists, the fashion media, fashion events and private boutiques. This study explores the experiences of and problems faced by South African designers in producing garments, meeting the price demanded by consumers, and being competitive in the current context of the local market that is dominated by the major retail chains. However, as this research paper will show, numerous South African designers are managing in different ways to succeed and in so doing, have created viable and successful design operations in a very competitive industry. The participants interviewed for this study are all independent designers and successful in their own right. Some have been in the industry for many years, while others are establishing their names and brands in the marketplace. All these designers manufacture from their own atelier (studio) or factory, thereby retaining production control. As and when the need arises, some outsource part of their production to CMTs (cutmake- and-trim specialists) or home-based workers. Many of the designers sell within both the formal and informal economy, some sell their products through their own boutiques while others sell through private boutiques. A common theme of these designers' success is that they grew their business gradually, learning incrementally about the business of fashion and how to maintain control over their cash-flows while slowly growing their visibility in the market. In the interviews, the designers reflected on the importance of customer relations, the importance of Fashion Weeks for promoting their products, as well as the importance of finding reliable suppliers. A common difficulty experienced by the designers is that of finding the correct balance between creativity and commercial success. The study concludes with some recommendations for the promotion and sustainability of South African design content, such as development of co-operative ventures or small clusters of designers working together and creating economies of scale in order to wield greater influence in the value chain. Another important recommendation made is that of designers finding suitable business partners, so that while the designers focus on creative work, their partner drives the commercial and marketing arm of the operation.