The African fashion awards are set to take place tonight. Guests have been finalized, a catering company hired and wait staff prepped to help the event run smoothly. Then later, anxious nominees will be listed and the winner will stand to collect their award and say a few words. Categories like Outstanding Contribution to Fashion Styling or even Fashion Communicator of the Year were included. 

But there will be no presenter handing an award in a menswear category because there simply was no category of this kind. You would not be wrong in thinking this odd. Only last year the Best Menswear Designer in Africa award was given to Stiaan Louw for his progressive work. Have things changed so much since then that a major category is absent from the awards? Add to that the absence of a single menswear show for AFI fashion week which began on Thursday in Johannesburg.

It begs the question: What is going on with menswear in our country, our continent?

My first thought was to contact AFI directly but unfortunately, after numerous emailing and phone call inquiries no one was able to answer my concerns. Even Neil Doveton, Head of Menswear at 36 Boutiques inquired and their response was “No menswear designers..." No menswear shows or African based designers nominated? What about Ephymol, David West, Adriaan Kuiters, Suzaan Heyns, Port, Stiaan Louw, Naked Ape, Carducci, Fabiani or MaXhosa? Neil said “It is truly a sad state of affairs when there is absolutely no presence of menswear in one of our biggest fashion calendar events.”
Menswear needs a category to inspire a struggling medium. Cancelling such an award feels like we have given up on menswear altogether when we still have enough time to provide support. Even if we help current menswear survive what can we say of those looking to make a career of men’s fashion in the future? I recently gave a talk to 2nd year students at Elizabeth Galloway and I casually posed the question of who was planning to design menswear. No one raised a hand, only two, after prompting said they would probably try a little.

So how many of those students end up designing? How many of them end up as merchandisers or buyers? “Is it because menswear is more challenging?” asks Neil Doveton  “Are we rushing after the quick-buck and easy-to-make and avoid the artisanal skills and complexities of menswear design?” 

But let’s not point fingers, there are far too many elements that contribute. Let us rather draw attention to the bigger picture. Firstly, why are there so few menswear designers in South Africa?  For starters the market is very small, but the reason behind it can’t be a lack of a male consumer. A large portion of South African men know how to dress and, provided there was more to choose from, would not be far behind our international counterparts. Neil personally finds the lack of local menswear “a bit insulting to the South African man. Menswear in S.A is in dire straits.” Adding that he wishes designers would “acknowledge us for who we have become!”

David West, who designs for both men and women, says that poor fabric adds to the problem, especially when considering the prices a designer must charge for the end product. To make matters worse the expenses to produce a range are very expensive for the bad production facilities and poor workmanship.  So what does that mean for our chances of exporting? It’s possible but again, too expensive and where would their clothing be housed? To be profitable it would have to be at a lower end store. It is the case even on a local scale where stock is ordered on a consignment basis. The garments come in at a high price range and additionally they want input in the design.  Stiaan adds “You are competing with retailers who are producing similar product in China at a lower price point, better fabrics and obtainable with account/payment terms” As it is there aren’t many good menswear outlets, especially in Johannesburg.  The cost of having your own store and overheads of running your own label are enormous. Imagine the amount of product you would have to sell to break even. Another option would be to sell from their studio but how would that bring in substantial turnover?

Showing at fashion week(s) can only help so much, but the platform, as David West calls it is “splintered”. Obviously politics aside, having one fashion week would be far better.  Derek Geddes of Elizabeth Galloway, a fashion school in Stellenbosch, believes that South African menswear designers do not understand the psyche of the male consumer, releasing looks onto a runway with the “pomp and splendor of a Yankee Doodle”.  Agreeable when you see a model walk a show in a silver suit made from sheen material. Or, as I experienced at AFI fashion week early this year, a show creating the opulent, if not arrogant illusion of a man about town when the buttons of his double-breasted suit were not even aligned. However, those designers who do get it right in execution and styling aren’t always able to show their work unless a sponsor is involved.

Derek suggests that we have a dedicated day for menswear at fashion week, but while they would need to focus and hone their skills the most important factor to consider would be a viable retail presence, and in his opinion they should only be considered to show if this is the case. Surely initiating a strong standard would benefit future designers looking to make a name for themselves in menswear.
This is already the case for a flooded ladieswear market that had Stiaan Louw (previously a womanswear designer) step back to watch a change occur.  This shift in the market was due to men becoming more style conscious and aware of international trends (with the help of the media explosion), but without access unless they travelled.

So what do men need from a designer? A place to purchase local designers, for one thing. Derek offers a solution by proposing the establishment of a fashion retail council that sponsors retail space on a long term basis. With that the general public would finally have a place to purchase local garments directly. If that doesn’t work how about getting brands like Mr. Price or Edgars to release capsule collections of local menswear designers like they do for women. This kind of change is important when you consider the list of international brands looking to sink their roots into our already dying menswear market. Once Zara opens their doors what will become of us?  

If anything now is the time to put our  focus on this problem. The public wants access to international trends and yet they want to support local design too. Chosing to ignore menswear until it rights itself is not an option. 
So now what?

Update: Congratulations to Ozwald Boateng for winning the Best international designer.