A model confidently walks down the runway, wearing a cropped, sporty dress in a multicolored print, paired with ornate earrings and flat shoes. This look could have easily been seen on the runways of Paris or Milan, but it came down a catwalk in Cape Town, South Africa, during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Cape Town last week.
The look was designed by Marianne Fassler, known as the grande dame of South African fashion. Her style mirrors a local taste for contemporaneity infused with tradition: Although the silhouette is global, a knowing eye will quickly notice various, subtle cultural references, like prints and accessories that nod at traditional Zulu fashion.
Like many designers who showed at Cape Town Fashion Week, Fassler’s style tends to be described by a local buzzword, “Afropolitan.” “It’s a cosmopolitan approach to African aesthetic: Africa through the lens of modernity and global relevance,” explains Kyle Boshoff, the retail buyer for AFI (African Fashion International), an organization committed to boosting upscale African fashion round the world, and who works hand in hand with fashion week.
This approach blends various touches from all over the continent with cutting-edge trends. Take young label Akedo, by designer Eleni Labrou. The ultra-androgynous, slouchy urban designs bear motifs that are both inspired by pre-historical Sub-Saharan rock art merged with graffiti, “a creative movement that is quite prevalent in re-urbanizing downtown Johannesburg,” said the designer, who believes street art “is comparable to modern day rock art.”
South Africa’s visually striking landscape is also a source of influence: 22-year-old Nicholas Coutts, the winner of the 2013 ELLE South Africa Rising Star Design Award, imagined a color palette based on the African dung beetle’s blue and green metallic glimmer. He went on to construct a shimmery collection aimed at a modern Power-Frau, with sharp yet practical tailoring, making him comparable to Paris’ Cédric Charlier.
Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, executive chairperson of the AFI, described South Africa’s major cities (Johannesburg, Cape Town) as having a “a rising middle class and a solid, stable banking system, which makes the country a fruitful place for young, internationally-conscious projects.”
Twenty years after the end of Apartheid, a young generation of designers is looking to explore a new area for self-expression, equality, and freedom. “[This] is what our country is all about today,” says Coutts. He adds, “Fashion will continue to fight for freedom.”