Clive Rundle, who waited tables at a pizza outlet and started as a designer in apartheid South Africa, has been selling delicious womenswear for more than three decades.
Clive Rundle is what many see as a trailblazer in the African fashion industry.
With a career spanning three decades, he has showcased on the scintillating catwalks of New York and Milan, but his entrepreneurial journey unravelled in his parents’ garage at a time when South Africa was still in the throes of apartheid.
We meet Zimbabwean-born Rundle, today the founder and owner of Clive Designs CC, and his machinists, at his factory in the grim CBD of Johannesburg.
It’s a designer’s den: around him, sewing machines, patterns, sketches, garments on the racks and order amid all the chaos. Within the confines of the dull and grey walls, a riot of color and creativity.
After obtaining a diploma in fashion design in 1983 from the Gordon Flack-Davidson Academy of Design, in Johannesburg, Rundle spent four years traveling between Europe and the United Sates, learning the styles of preeminent artists there.
For him, it was less about wanting to be a fashion designer and more about having a business that would make him rich.
On his return from the many travels around the world, Rundle started Clive Designs from the garage of his home.
His first client was Wizards, a boutique in Johannesburg who he supplied for three years.
At the time, he juggled between being a designer and waiting tables at Pizzaland, a chain of pizza restaurants in Hillbrow.
“I didn’t even have an overlocker. I did everything myself; the sourcing, cutting, running around and marketing.It was just a one-man show, there was nothing except me and my car,” says Rundle.
The first dress he made for Wizards was sold wholesale for R100 ($7.6) – the price of a small pizza these days. Today, Rundle’s dresses cost from R890 ($69) to R37,000 ($2,847) and more.
“What we sold then we would never be able to sell today, it was too conceptual and now the same designs are just too avant-garde to wear in the streets. We sold it from batch to batch, it wasn’t like we did collections or showcased at fashion shows. In those days, there were no fashion weeks, but more product shows,” says Rundle who looks more rock-star than designer.
In 1986, Rundle was also supplying more than 60 boutiques in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland.
Two years later, he managed to scrape a few thousand rands and opened his first store in Rosebank Mall, north of Johannesburg. At this time, the United Nations had sanctions on South Africa, which hindered his endeavours to do business internationally.
“That was the height of the textile industry and South Africa was in its own little bubble. The sanctions against us created a very different industry to the one we know today. Products could not be imported from abroad,” he says.
As South Africa celebrated the end of apartheid and welcomed a new democratic government in 1994, the international fashion market opened to Rundle but he laments the downfall of the textile industry in the country.
“When the sanctions ended, everything that had been protected became globalized and many aspects of the textile industry collapsed. You can see from the membership figures of the Garment Workers Union which went from 300,000 members to less than 40,000 in 20 years. We have lost many jobs in the industry,” rues Rundle.
Despite the challenges in the textile industry, there are many designers coming in.
“There is not enough need for designers – there’s no industry to either employ you, even if you graduate from a school in Germany, it’s the same thing. If you are lucky to get a drawing job at a company, that’s a big deal. You don’t get to do fashion shows and collections. You have to do 10 to 15 years interning before you can even think of independently establishing your own brand,” he says.
Rundle is critical of design schools that overemphasize the glamor of being a fashion designer rather than focusing on the technical expertise needed for the industry.
“Students think it’s all about the celebrities and the drawings of long-flowing gowns trailing along the red carpet. But that’s the picture painted by the fashion industry. You need to understand that it will take another 15 years before you are truly ready to make it into the global sphere,” says Rundle.
The industry needs people who have manufacturing and technical skills in addition to design.
“Not everyone should be taught to be a fashion designer; there should be schools for tailors, pattern-cutters, graders. We need to refocus on the schooling; at grade 10, people should start learning the trade.”
This seems to be a lucrative industry abroad. Rundle says in Europe, to showcase at the Paris Fashion Week, costs a lot. A designer has to produce the show, pay the models, the producer, pay for the lights and the technical production team.
“It’s okay if you’re just happy to be in the industry for making clothes and you love sewing but it’s tough when you want to be on top of the league,” says Rundle.
Rundle and his team of four people; a grader, pattern-cutter and two seamsters, work long hours before the fashion weeks. They have to design and prepare three months before the show.
“We start with a tiny sketch of a technical aspect of a garment, for example, the shoulder seam or a collar. We focus very much on the technical challenge. That requires a very good pattern-cutter and synergy between the pattern-cutter and designer. As mentioned, this is difficult to find because everyone wants to be a fashion designer,” says Rundle.
“We need time to resolve technical problems, then look at the bigger picture which is you’ve got 15 models coming down the ramp, how are they going to look. We’ve started cluster development where the whole collection is held in one pattern. It can take us five to 10 working calicos. We have to keep evolving the holding capacity of one pattern to develop one collection.”
To his staff, Rundle is more than an employer, but a patient mentor.
“I’ve learned everything I know today from Rundle, when I came here I didn’t know anything about the fashion industry. I have friends who have been working in other companies for 20 years but still can’t sew. Rundle sees the potential in a person and allows us to learn,” says Nobantu Dube, a grader and an assistant pattern-cutter who has worked with Rundle for 28 years.
“We live in hard economic times, if Rundle were to close down his business; we’d be able to continue on our own because we have the necessary skills, which he taught us,” she says.
Vusi Mpofu, who worked with Rundle for seven years, says: “Here, we have to think and apply our minds all the time. When one of us makes a mistake and we pick it up, we all help to rectify it.”
Clearly, Rundle is not happy to be at the top of the fashion industry on his own; he wants other Africans to stand by his side.
Trends and fashion tips for 2018: by Clive Rundle