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Art, Culture

We’ll drift through this

by Brett Rubin / 19.11.2012

Elsa Schiaparelli once remarked that ‘in difficult times fashion is always outrageous’.
Perhaps in these challenging times of the global economic recession, the fashion industry and its accompanying media circus has become somewhat more outrageous than the garments parading down the ramps.

After the dust settles on yet another fashion week in Johannesburg, the current controversy doing the rounds comes courtesy of The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman, who was a high profile guest of honour at the recent AFI fashion week. In particular, Schuman’s comments about the South African fashion week crowd lacking charm and his decision to feature street style from Soweto and Braamfontein on his blog instead; much to the disappointment of those sponsors who probably spent a small fortune bringing him out here, in the hope that he would give the fashion week some extra dimension of hype and prestige (a decision that is highly questionable to begin with).

Perhaps The Sartorialist did himself no favours with the following comment: “I’ve only met a few people here that I’ve maybe wanted to take pictures of. Johannesburg reminds me of a lot of cities, like Moscow, Buenos Aires and (cities) in Poland, places that had some kind of political or economic difficulty, or they were a communist country for a long time…A lot of the women here are very beautiful, very perfect in every way, but it lacks a certain amount of charm.”

Schuman’s somewhat naïve or arrogant ‘enlightenment’ on the supposed ratio of a city’s charm to its socio-political or economic problems of yesteryear brings to mind a wonderful line by Jean Cocteau, perhaps a true sartorial creative intellectual of his times: “Mirrors should think longer before they reflect”.

Now before you go burning all the copies of the Sartorialist’s books in a furious act of protest at your local Exclusive Books, let’s first consider that here is a guy accustomed to shooting at the premium fashion weeks around the world, staged in some of the most beautiful cities across the globe. Most of these fashion weeks feature people dressed to the nines walking down the street to attend high profile shows.

Does it come as a surprise that Schuman wasn’t exactly swept off his feet by the Melrose Arch Piazza and the bold, at times courageous, at times in vain (or perhaps just vain), attempts of those attending the recent fashion week to be noticed and photographed by the Sartorialist for their 15 seconds of internet immortality?

It’s intriguing that most of the international media that visit Johannesburg these days have been mesmerized by areas such as Soweto, Maboneng and Braamfontein and in particular those who frequent or inhabit these districts. I’m yet to see a high profile international feature praise the wonderment of our shopping malls and all the promise for South Africa’s future they have to offer…

So it begs to be asked why our fashion weeks continue to be staged in shopping malls and hotels in the Northern Suburbs, far removed from a fledgling street culture that is catching an international audience’s attention.

A few years back, SA Fashion Week was held at Arts on Main, whilst AFI fashion week explored various iconic settings of the inner city (such as the Bus Factory in Newtown, Constitutional Hill and the Mandela Bridge). Some believed that this heralded a bright new direction for South African fashion, others more cynically dismissed these grand gestures as simply being World Cup window-dressing.
Perhaps the well-dressed elephant in the room here that few are willing to acknowledge is the fact that we have so many fashion weeks in the first place. If one fashion week a year can suffice for the major global fashion capitals, why then do we insist on having so many in South Africa (particularly in Johannesburg), and having them so close together too? All this achieves is an industry divided by loyalties and an awkward sense of Groundhog Day when trying to make small talk with colleagues in the media lounge.

Its been suggested that fashion’s role in a society is to hold up a mirror, whilst this is debatable, there’s no denying that fashion speaks its own instant language (whether it be fact or fiction). Maybe South African fashion needs to start taking more into account about who it is trying to speak to and what elements of our present-day social fabric it is trying to reflect.

It was refreshing to see street-wear culture re-interpreted and showcased in collections from designers across the African Continent, such as Craig Native, Laurence Airline and Projecto Mental, whilst other designers, in particular Marianne Fassler with her show titled “The Remix”, showed clear signs of wanting to engage with a new, younger audience.

Love or hate Leopard Print, there is no denying that Marianne Fassler’s glittering and enduring career in a difficult, and at times extremely fickle industry, has placed her in a very different stratosphere to most of her current South African design contemporaries.

This show, with its somewhat self-reflective theme of a remix and well-thought out soundtrack to match, did not disappoint with the array of different fabrics, prints and colour on display.
The show opened to Spoek Mathambo’s remix of the post-punk classic ‘She’s Lost Control’, then at the midway point the original Joy Division version of the same song suddenly appeared (much to the delight of those in the audience still familiar with Joy Division).

As a central remix, this choice was most fitting in the sense that Fassler’s career spans roughly the same length of time between when these two different versions were produced. During that time span, Fassler has also been at the forefront of establishing a modern-day South African fashion aesthetic and identity; one that attempts to take into account the vastly different types of women living in our country and in particular their different personal and cultural backgrounds and influences, while at the same time trying to move beyond the obvious stereotypes that exist.

In her latest collection, a post-punk sensibility informs lo-fi decisions such as cutting patterns from large patterned carrier bags and adding this into a collection that updates or in this case remixes Fassler’s unique aesthetic towards an emerging Afro-Futurist generation.

Much like video killed the radio star with the launch of MTV, it appears that the blogosphere has killed the fashion writer, these days every one is a critic with a ready-to-wear opinion. Whether this has made fashion more democratic or demographic is questionable, but there’s no denying our culture has become more disposable with its throw-away “here now, blogged today, forgotten about tomorrow” outlook.

It was Ian Curtis, the tragic yet brilliant frontman of Joy Division who foresaw this cultural paradigm-shift on the horizon when he sang: “we’ll drift through it all, it’s the modern age…”

*All images © Brett Rubin.

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