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Designers and Editors on Perception Shaping Reality

By Modupe Oloruntoba 

A look from Rich Mnisi's "Milorho" Collection | Ph. Ricardo Simal

In 1887, England passed a law requiring foreign companies to identify their products by where they were made. The story goes that there were German companies (and others) ripping off British products, and they wanted to identify and stigmatise them. Closer to the end of the 19th century, the decision backfired when Germany, a growing industrial powerhouse, became known for high-quality goods that England’s own could not compare to at the time. The brand designed to shame them became a mark of pride.

The “Made in Germany” label is now over 130 years old and bolsters the sale of German products around the world through the power of perception. To most, their label translates to an expectation of exacting design, a solid build, and the application of vaguely defined ‘German precision’. It’s a reputation that goes largely unquestioned.

Country of origin labelling has as much to do with the quality of manufactured goods (especially exports) as it has to do with a country’s social, political, and cultural reputation, however that reputation came to be. We use products and pass judgement on our experiences with them, but we also make assumptions influenced by social bias and see connections between characteristics, events, and groups that have very little to do with each other. If enough of us make the same judgements and assumptions, the reputation sticks.

The labelling practice and its governing policies are going through some changes - globalisation has helped develop and cement our perceptions of different countries and their manufacturing practices, but has also made defining a single country of origin much more complicated. Now, while it’s in flux and while South Africa doesn’t have much of a reputation for anything in particular on the manufacturing end of fashion, it makes sense to look at our own label, and think critically about what it says about our products, and what we want it to say about our products.

We know that Charles Worth is widely regarded as the first designer to sew authenticating brand labels into his clothes, but there’s no definitive word on when or where country of origin labelling began in earnest for fashion products. What we do know, is that it matters.

The trust we place in labels like Made in Italy has real value, represented by Italy’s popularity as a manufacturer of high-quality leather accessories. As interest in African designers grows and as South African designers take their work to the world through global boutiques, DTC e-commerce, and programs like the International Fashion Showcase, we have a chance to shape that message.

Right now, the Made in South Africa label can be whatever we make it. For designers, craftspeople and a shrinking number of skilled seamsters and tailors, a mark known for quality and innovation could open doors to new markets. Ethical, transparent, eco-friendly manufacturing could be part of it, too. With a large youth population, alarming unemployment rates, and plenty of opportunity for modern fashion manufacturing infrastructure, Africa in general and South Africa in particular offer the global fashion industry a chance at the fresh start it desperately needs.

A look by design duo MmusoMaxwell | Ph. Obakeng Molepe

High Concept Dressing by Nao Serati | Ph. Aart Verrips

Here, designers and editors from different corners of the local industry answer for themselves the question of what reality they hope the Made in South Africa label comes to represent:

With what feels like the world’s eye on our country, it's important to respond to this interest with a product that can contend with players on a global stage*, a product that doesn’t use the outdated excuse that its exoticism excuses faults in quality. Before we can create a South African Vogue, and form a solid fashion export offering, it’s important for the country to develop a fashion production industry that understands luxury, to base all that exposure on. I think our true power within fashion one day - once firm strategies and smart investments are put in place - will be that we provide clothes that are both culturally rich and impeccably made, clothes you cannot get anywhere else because their birthplace and story are intrinsically ours and cannot be imitated. 

- Thebetsile Magugu, Designer, Thebe Magugu

When South Africans designers reference the past (which is what fashion does all the time) they talk about a period of being cut off from the rest of the world and from each other. The way our world looked in the '70s, '80s and early '90s plays a big part in what our designers are drawing from now - their childhood looked distinctly different to many other parts of the world and this instantly gives them a unique point of view.

Perhaps the most obvious thing we can offer the world is a unique take on fashion with a Southern Hemisphere point of view. South Africa, in particular, has a distinctly vibrant take on colour and pattern which echoes our vibrant culture. The clash of urban life with nature, high-end with make-shift style is quite unique and are contrasts that are around us every day and seep into the work of our designers. 

- David West, Head of Design, Superbalist

We are only beginning to understand that the tools we need to reach our full potential are and have always been in our heads and in our hearts. We are learning to look from within and learning that the world yearns to belong to a culture such as our own. The same nuances and diversity that cause so much contention in our country are what define us as creatives. We do and have always had to function in a system that requires us to think about how our artistry will impact those around us. Dare I say we are conditioned to design in a way that puts others first. I hope and believe that “Made in South Africa” will continue to realise these three powerful promises: designed with purpose, made to inspire and created to empower others. 

- Robyn Keyser, Founder, Artclub and Friends

I'd like made in South Africa to mean something that is produced ethically, considers the environment and utilises our world-class diverse unique design talent. I want it to invoke the idea of contributing to an economy with high unemployment and that these products contribute to a much-needed culture of entrepreneurship. I want ‘Made in South Africa’ to change the perceptions of the creative industries on the continent and to break the stereotypes of how Africa is perceived globally. 

- Anthony Smith, Founder, 2Bop

Although a lot of local consumers perceive "Made in South Africa" as a symbol or idea that lacks credibility, we see the opposite. To us, Made in South Africa represents integrity, diversity and uniqueness not only in heritage but also through storytelling. For this idea to resonate with a wider audience, it’s our duty and responsibility as creatives to make sure our workmanship and product hold their own when compared to the rest, so that the defining characteristics of our aesthetic shines through. 

- Mmuso Potsane & Maxwell Boko, Designers, MmusoMaxwell

With the world’s eye finally on Africa, and particularly on South Africa, its designers, artists, and creators need to work hard to ensure that the tag ‘Made in South Africa’ is a mark that transcends curio-esque, tourist-trapped stereotypes and Eurocentrically moulded gimmicks boxed in by preconceived ideas of what it means to be African or South African. It should stand as a mark of originality, cultural complexity, and multi-layered identity. As “Made in Italy” bears the assumption that the garment was passed through the hands of expert craftsmen, reflects skill and a carefully constructed product, so too should the mark of locally made products. Not only do we hope that it suggests value and reverence but also that the garment is truly worth the investment. 

- Kelly Fung, Editor

Made in South Africa means resources and inspiration are no longer taken from us, but rather made by us, for the world. South Africa is one of the world’s most beautiful and diverse countries, with no less than 11 official languages. Over the past few years, there’s been a general awakening to the idea that our diversity, heritage, and culture are our strength and they give us a unique perspective new to the global market. In the fashion industry, we’ve found that designers who’ve incorporated elements of culture and heritage in their work have attracted international attention and success. It shows that the stories and skills passed down to us can create meaningful and unique works that the world has shown a real demand for. 

- Thabo Makhetha-Kwinana, Founder & Head Designer, Thabo Makhetha

Made in South Africa will represent authentic craftsmanship, innovative design, and global vision. As the country's fashion industry and infrastructure develop, labels will be able to fully utilise local materials such as merino wools, and harness local inspirations to bring its unique take on 21st-century style to the world. 

- Helen Jennings, Editorial Director, Nataal Magazine