South African designer Gavin Rajah was studying law at the University of Cape Town, with an interest in medical law, when he felt the need to keep busy and earn some extra money. His father owned a clothing store, so he began selling clothes to his friends and classmates. This led to restyling students’ formal dresses and eventually finding someone nearby to manufacture his own designs.
Rajah found law too depressing and chose to ditch it so he could find something more creative. Fashion seemed like the natural step forward, but his father had one piece of advice: ‘Fashion is a very difficult business and you don’t want to get into this business’.
Instead of pursuing his dream, Rajah’s second act, a marketing degree, served him well. With his keen sense of business, he started an events company that did so well it caught the attention of South African-based and listed Naspers, a multinational media company. Naspers bought 60% of the business in 2005 but the relationship went sour, leaving Rajah no choice but to leave the business and take his name with him. His old clients followed.
With fashion in his blood, Rajah soon made his way back, with an arsenal of business and marketing knowledge. He describes his business expansion plan as conservative, owed to the fact that it has all been self-funded. Not coming from a strictly creative background, Rajah sees things from a more objective perspective. He feels that artists often get lost on the creative side, that creativity gives way to commerciality.
Rajah was the first African to receive an invite to participate at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Paris. Other fashion houses were calling him for invites to the show. He had to face the stereotypes that people had about Africa. They were expecting garments made from shweshwe – a sotho print – and porcupine quills. Rajah has nothing against the use of African prints, but feels that they can be made contemporary by sending them to a graphic designer and having them reinterpreted.
The designer is also the founder of the Cape Town and Durban fashion weeks, as well as the Cape Town Flower Show.
Taking on a role as a mentor, Rajah raised money and worked with Precious Moloi-Motsepe’s Africa Fashion International (AFI) business to take four designers – Thula Sindi, Craig Native, Thabani Mavundla and David Tlale – to showcase overseas, in 2007. Rajah felt that black designers in South Africa were not getting international exposure. Understanding the boundaries involved in breaking into the international scene, he wanted the showcase to give them that exposure. People told him he was throwing the designers to the wolves but he wanted to prove them wrong. Rajah says there is a high level of mutual respect in the international fashion industry. Sindi and Native still call him for business advice.
Rajah believes that AFI and Moloi-Motsepe are great, giving designers an amazing platform. He also believes the designers themselves hold the key to success.
His inspiration comes from books, music, theater and traveling. Each season is different. Rajah’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa collection in October was inspired by a visit to the Tower of London and books on the legend of King Arthur. Each collection takes around two months to complete, this has improved with time and experience since he no longer doubts himself.
When the ideas come in, he makes quick sketches, refines them and, once he’s done, he involves the rest of the team. A lot of changes happen when they have completed the mock designs, and even more once the collection is complete. Rajah does not ignore the need to pay attention to trends, without necessarily following every single one.
According to him, fashion is about creating a brand and that takes a lot of money. Your brand needs to evolve, meaning you need to make sure it’s marketable, relevant and contemporary. Rajah uses the same approach in his events company that he uses in his designs, designing everything from the lighting and sound to table clothes and food.
He feels that since the events industry, like fashion, is not regulated, you have to work harder to entrench your name in people’s minds and prove yourself. His strategy is to be conceptual, innovative, understand his market and exceed expectations.
Last year was good for Rajah. He was named as one of the 150 designers to watch around the world in the January issue of the Italian edition of Vogue, he was also named South African Tourism designer of the year.
“We chose him for his role as a strong champion of South African design. He’s established himself as an entrepreneur in the world of fashion and has been instrumental in profiling South African designs. His work has helped establish South Africa globally as a fantastic lifestyle, culture and heritage destination,” says the chief executive officer of South African Tourism, Thulani Nzima.
“People don’t understand the work that designers do. An architect might build one house a year, or two. A designer puts six to eight collections out every year and every one has to be commercially successful,” says Rajah.
According to Rajah, South Africa is behind when it comes to recognizing the fashion business, particularly financial institutions.
Rajah’s fashion business is entirely supported by international clients. Celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé and Cameron Diaz have worn his creations, while Gavin Rajah Concept (GRC) clients range from brides looking to make their wedding day unforgettable, to corporates like Nike, Jaguar and Sun International.
“You can’t believe your own hype. The minute you start believing it, it’s a problem. The minute you don’t start selling clothes, it’s a problem.”
Last year, GRC won the Event Producer of the Year award at the Event Solutions Spotlight Awards. It was also nominated for the Corporate Event Planner of the Year, Event Company of the Year and Creative Director of the Year awards. The team was also nominated for three more awards this year in Las Vegas, in the United States, and won Event Producer of the Year at the end of March.
Being named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2007 is undoubtedly Rajah’s career highlight, as he is very passionate about championing people who don’t have a voice. He often wakes up at night shocked by all he has created and the number of people dependent on him. He is blessed enough to love what he does. Now that he is older, it’s about running a business and he is at the stage where he can take small risks.
At this year’s Design Indaba, the Gavin Rajah exhibit was a bathroom setting. It was his interpretation of the dirtiness of the fashion industry.
“It’s a dirty business and we’ve got to learn to change it.”
Rajah says things like drugs and sex happen in bathrooms. The mirrored perspex he used in his exhibition was hinting at the narcissism prevalent in the fashion world.
“Fashion has become so obsessive, so decadent, so hyped up and people behave so badly.”
His pebble dress from the Spring/Summer 2013 couture collection was made from foiled leather pieces molded into pebble shapes and won him the Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object In South Africa competition.
The king of glamorous couture also partnered with retail chain Legit, under the Edcon Group, to design a ready-to-wear collection for the mainstream market.
Rajah has not looked back since opting to sell beautiful clothes. He creates dreams rather than false hope.