Up And Away: South African Fashion Designers In Demand Abroad; Local Textile Production Set To Increase

Published 6 months ago
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The growing participation of iconic South African fashion designers in exclusive international fashion events, as witnessed in September 2023 at the Paris, Milan and New York Fashion Weeks respectively, not only bodes well for the careers of top South African fashion designers but for the entire SA fashion industry, in terms of growth and potential exports.

“From Viviers Studio and their third showcase at Milan Fashion Week, Celeste Arendse’s SELFI showcasing in New York City, to the incredible partnership between Tumi Buys’ The Fashion Firm SA, Mercedes Benz and 10 South African designers at Milan’s The White Show – suffice to say that South Africa is showing no signs of slowing our presence internationally,” commented fashion writer and wordsmith Holly Beaton, on the independent media space and integrated agency, CEC, following SA designers’ presence at recent international fashion events.

“While we have never needed international recognition to affirm the creative ingenuity of South Africa, this kind of global exposure, networking, cultural exchange and market exposure are immeasurable additions to our local industry; nurturing the possibilities of designers in the present and the talent of the future, to experience the world as truly their stage,” she added.


Catching the Eye

Indeed, when it comes to bold and vibrant colours, style, variety and innovation, South African designers are increasingly catching the eye and claiming their stake, both locally and internationally. Design icons like Nkhensani Nkosi (Stoned Cherrie); Linda Gale (Stitch & Steel); Jacques van der Watt (Black Coffee); stalwart Marianne Fassler (Leopard Frock); David Tlale;  Palesa Mokubung (Mantsho); Mzukisi Mbane (Swagger Diaries); Wandile Zondo (Thesis Lifestyle); Thula Sindi; Bongiwe Walaza; Cari Stephenson (Tart); Laduma Ngxokolo (MaXhosa Africa); Leigh Schubert; Thebe Magugu and Gert-Johan Coetzee are only a few of the country’s designers who are leading the way. Moreover, many of these designers have successfully showcased their work and labels at international fashion events and are becoming internationally renowned.

Industry Overview 

 According to SME South Africa, the Clothing, Textiles, Footwear, and Leather (CTFL) industry is big business in South Africa, currently representing some  14% of manufacturing employment in the country, which would mean that the sector facilitates an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 jobs. Textiles are also the country’s eleventh largest manufactured goods export.


The South African textile industry is very versatile, with a blend of traditional and modern textile production processes being used. Government has recognized the opportunities that the textile industry offers, and so it has focused on improving domestic textile products, processes, and delivery efficiencies. Over $1 billion has been spent on the South African textile industry since 1994, to help the industry upgrade and modernize. This has also been done to help the textile industry compete on a global scale. 

As a small business, the South African textile industry offers many opportunities. From producing clothes and selling them in a local market, to mass textile production, there are many examples of South African fashion businesses that have achieved great success.  

Fashion Designers Contribution to GDP

Already in 2020, Mohair South Africa predicted that South Africa’s fashion designers could play an important role in helping to rejuvenate manufacturing and help create jobs and skills as the country grapples with the impact of and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.


A collaborative study in 2020 between the DTIC and the South African Cotton Cluster titled, Assessing the Economic Value of the Designer Fashion Sector in South Africa, revealed that designers, “an often-forgotten segment of South Africa’s clothing and textile sector, contributed at least R1 billion (approximately $53 million) to GDP during 2019. It also concluded that designers had substantial growth opportunities within an evolving local middle-class market estimated to be worth approximately R180 billion (approximately $9 billion).”

The study noted that the sector could aggressively target the growing upper-middle class of South Africa. It also identified opportunities for this segment of the sector to position itself in line with changing societal trends and influences, particularly when it came to growing the ‘slow fashion’ segment of the clothing market. 

Researchers noted that international markets had already begun to shift their buying behaviour towards ‘slow fashion’ which is defined as a more conscious approach, in which small-scale, responsibly produced products are favoured. Slow fashion sees an emphasis on considered designs, limited production of ranges and a focus on the use of natural fibres and recycled materials as opposed to harmful synthetic alternatives. The study highlighted that the South African designer clothing sector was incredibly well-placed to adopt the slow fashion mentality and to cater to this growing trend.

“The sector has the ability to service the increasingly stringent requirements of the market when it comes to sustainability and ethicality throughout brands’ value chains. There are ample opportunities when it comes to positioning the designer apparel sector as a pioneer and custodian of sustainability. The sector’s contribution to the local economy, as well as identified potential impact, positions the designer apparel sector as a key investment opportunity,” the study states.


Industry Growth

In his SONA 2023 address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out that the clothing manufacturing industry in South Africa contributes around one-third of GDP. It is an important sector to invest in, which is why government’s textile, footwear and clothing cluster master plan intends increasing the amount of locally-made garments in stores from 44% to 65% by 2030. If it succeeds, it could create 120,0000 more jobs, bringing the total number of work opportunities across the entire fashion supply chain to 330,000, he said.

In terms of the recently implemented industry masterplan, major retailers have committed to increasing locally-made clothing ranges in their stores from around 50% currently to 65% by 2030.

Head of Global Markets at Brand South Africa, Jimmy Ranamane says that the South African fashion industry plays a crucial role in positioning the country as a ‘nation brand’ and a manufacturing hub in Africa. “Our fashion and textile industry not only contributes significantly to the country’s GDP and ultimately job creation. It is a key sector that helps promote South African exports in global markets and a crucial pillar of our country’s trade and investment story,” he says, adding that “the level of talent that South Africa exports in the fashion landscape competes with the best designers across the globe. The fact that our products are celebrated within the best of breed fashion events bears testament to the quality of designs that South Africans export to different markets,” says Ranamane.



Economic pressures, however, continue to weigh heavily on the clothing trade, and consumer spending remains constrained. The relatively robust performance of the value/discount fashion segment reflects the migration of cash-strapped customers to stores offering cheaper products. The March 27, 2020 lockdown precipitated a surge in online retail sales, as people cut back on in-store shopping. There were significantly fewer new store openings in 2020, with major retailers prioritizing cash preservation over capital expenditure. Adding to weaker consumer demand, supply chain disruptions and other pandemic-related challenges, was an eight-day spate of civil unrest in July 2021.

Yet, despite the above constraints, industry pundits are confident that South Africa’s fashion design and textile industry, particularly in the e-commerce sector is set to grow. “The South African Fashion ecommerce market is predicted to reach $858.4 million by 2023 and accounts for 13.6% of the total ecommerce market in South Africa. It is expected to increase over the next years. The expected compound annual growth rate for the next four years (CAGR 2023-2027) will be 14.1%, resulting in a projected market volume of $1,452.9 million by 2027.

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