Zenoyise Madikwa

Zenoyise Madikwa

Last month, Joburg Fashion Week put on a brave face in the midst of the worst recession in decades.

You'd have sworn all was well as the bony models pranced around in the latest creations.

Designers faced the dual challenge of trimming their spending and convincing penny-pinching sponsors.

One top designer said before the show: "Things are really bad. Companies that usually sponsor the show tightened their belts this year. We had to dig deep into our pockets for goody bags for our guests or go without them. We also had to go for fabrics that were easy on the pocket."

Boutiques have also had it tough. In July last year, tongues wagged when Bongiwe Walaza Couture closed shop at the posh World Wear Centre.

Last week, the industry was jittering again when the Afro-chic fashion house Sun Goddess closed some of its shops and left more than 20 staffers jobless.

According to South Africa's fashion trendsetter Dion Chang, during a recession the first to feel the pinch is the fashion industry, along with other luxury businesses.

The industry, worth billions of rands a year, has been hit hard by cheap Chinese imports.

According to fashion guru Felepe Mazibuko, the Chinese have killed the local fashion industry by copying local textiles and local designs.

"Textiles like Seshweshwe and ethnic clothes like Umbhaco that are uniquely South African are sold on the streets quite cheaply by the Chinese. This has had an effect on local designers, especially those dealing in ethnic wear. The effects are felt by workers too," Mazibuko says.

Walaza went back to her electrical engineering profession after she was forced to close shop.

"Things were bad even before the recession. It is hard to make a living in fashion in this country.

:The industry might look glamorous, but it is not profitable. We had to compete with cheap Chinese clothes and stiff taxes, and customers are very stingy," Walaza says.

Chang says the problem with the industry is that the majority of practitioners do not have any business sense.

"A lot of people who enter the industry for the glamour and who think it is easy, do not have any business sense. The media does not help either. Gossip columnists and tabloids make it look all glitzy and glamorous, while in fact it is paucity all the way," says Chang.

Despite the limping economy and poor sales, designer Thula Sindi is hopeful.

Sindi says though fabric prices have increased, business has not been bad.

"I have learnt that making clothes that clients can't do without is the only way to go. I make clothes that appeal and that my clientele cannot resist, even in difficult times," Sindi says, and adds: "Keep things simple. Be multi-skilled and have only two permanent staffers.

"And most important, keep your overheads low and do not succumb to competition and media pressure."