“There doesn’t appear to be a reigning historical perception of South African capital ‘F’ fashion”.
Even in its defiance of one, South African fashion, it seems, has long been expected to present a unifying aesthetic. The early vanguard of South African designers – the ones we consider veterans today – were charged with the mission of setting the tone and the standard for a fashion industry that could make a defining, all-encompassing statement and compete globally.
For this, it first needed local curiosity and investment.
What was arguably more important in this regard was therefore not fashioning a unifying aesthetic or even a shared visual language but proposing a guiding philosophy that South Africa’s citizenry could relate and connect to. What emerged was a vision of South African fashion that was optimistic, aspirational. It sought out and drew upon the beauty of the world, proposing a new way of seeing and engaging with African artistry, that transcended Western stereotypes.
In their refusal to be insular, designers such as Gavin Rajah demonstrated not only the fluidity and complexity of “South Africanness”, but also the curiosity that is part and parcel of it.
From the early days of his eponymous label, this designer has infused global trends and classic silhouettes with traditionally-coded prints and patterns and forms to produce luxury pieces that not only demonstrated African fashion as cosmopolitan and competitive, but that this would necessarily look different to the rest of the world. Some writers have called the leaders of this early movement “The Afropolitans”, while others refer to the movement itself as “Modern Romanticism”.
Designers pushed the task of “defying stereotypes” a little further, laying the foundation for today’s more culturally introspective designers to reference the beauty in what Thebe Magugu – in an interview with Spotify —refers to as “internal landscapes”.
Committed to a distinctly elaborate and thematic approach to fashion design, it’s no wonder that Gavin Rajah remains one of the most prolific designers to emerge from South Africa. What sets Gavin Rajah apart – and perhaps the root of his sustained commercial success over the past few decades – is his ability to articulate a high-powered, regal, and delicate femininity that appeals to those with the budget to consume high fashion, as well as those whose primary investment lies in the artistry. Through his meticulous attention to fine detail and a commitment to research and referencing the world around him, this homegrown fashion veteran is emblematic of where high art meets high fashion – from the mastery of concept to the mastery of craftsmanship, silhouette, and detail.
Boasting a time-honoured career of over 30 years, Rajah has long represented the cultural tides of the country and remains a key influence on the South African fashion industry. As AFI approaches its 16th year hosting Joburg Fashion Week, we celebrate our long-lasting relationship with one of the pioneers of this nation’s fashion industry.
JOBURG FASHION WEEK 2007
AFI’s inaugural Joburg Fashion Week was in January 2007. By this time, Rajah’s successes were already driving the conversation in the nation’s fashion industry. Following a showcase at Paris Couture Week, Rajah marked his return in a stunning showcase at the inaugural Joburg Fashion Week. Describing it in the programme, Rajah’s own words still bring gravity to the illusory qualities of a collection that he produced sixteen years ago:
“Everything has meaning, and nothing is what you see”
According to Rajah, this collection took inspiration from the 1970’s-era search for enlightenment and existential meaning in India and the Far-East. Taking cues from the writings of the famous Beat Generation, the collection paid homage to intuitive creativity and what Rajah refers to as “the semiotics of clothing”, playing on proportion, volume and colour in illusory ways to produce pieces that were communicative of a greater journey towards enlightenment.
JOBURG FASHION WEEK 2009
Upon his 2009 return to the Joburg Fashion Week runway, Rajah interwove tradition and modernity, bringing simple silhouettes to life through the bold colour, intricate detailing and the fine fabrics that form the label’s signature.
From gleaming gold silk brocade to elaborate animal prints, Rajah boasted his proficiency in womenswear in exuberant colour and illusory animal prints. Highlights included a sweeping gold overcoat, laid over a green and orange slip dress with a botanical print. A similar slip dress makes an appearance, this one appearing to shroud a cheetah-print underskirt. Speaking to the wildlife themes of the collection, a gold chain embellishment reminiscent of an exoskeleton was draped over the shoulders – a subtly extravagant finishing detail to the ensemble.
Joburg Fashion Week 2015
Rajah’s 2015 showcase was a Resort collection that sought to illustrate a transition of the seasons into Summer. According the designer himself, the aim of the collection was to be relaxed, yet elevated enough to be worn at cocktail parties and other such high-brow events.
Here, Rajah’s proificiency in presenting a sensual, yet delicate femininity was demonstrated in great detail and lace embroidery. Opening with a collection of golden bikini’s, Rajah set the tone with his signature flair for the lustrous. This was followed by lacy white pieces with intricate floral detailing. Highlights included a petite lace shrug. From lace detailing and embroidery to floral applique, Rajah once again plays with illusion, creating the sensuous suggestion of bare skin, shrouding it in lace, once again inject the element of what you see never being quite complete.
Rajah followed this relaxed aesthetic with a bit of the label’s signature drama, creating structure in a teal silk-brocade shawl, buttoned at the collarbone over a sequined black dress. Loosely woven sunhats with a deconstructed, unfinished appearance brought a harsh element that contrasted the more delicate elements of the collection.
JOBURG FASHION WEEK 2017
Having showcased at Joburg Fashion Week for just over a decade, by 2017, Rajah’s shows had become synonymous with the kind of dreamy spectacle and fantasy that people look for in fashion. His 2017 showcase was no different, impressing the audience early with a collection highlighted by floral details and gold and silver colour schemes.
According to the designer, this collection references an era in Parisian fashion known as “La Belle Epoque” – an era of beauty and innovation, also understood to be the birth of “couture” as we know it. In referencing this era, the designer sought to return to the very root of his engagement in fashion – the desire to make beautiful things, stating plainly: “I think people want to see beautiful things”.
Highlights include a quilted silver gown that appeared to reference the Korean Hanbok in its voluminous, structured appearance, crossed over at the center and tied together by a large ribbon, as well as a golden, architectural, collared A-Line gown with sequin detailing.
JOBURG FASHION WEEK 2022
Rajah opened his Joburg Fashion Week 2022 showcase with a stunning, architectural, green and white bolero. Paired with a set of high-waisted black pants, it was followed by a bold curation of bejewelled silver, hot-pink, black and purple pieces. Marking thirty years of the label, Rajah’s most recent showcase with AFI was a demonstration of this brand’s prowess as a pioneer of African fashion.
Eliciting awe from the audience, models’ faces glittered under the spotlight – fittingly so, against the sequin motif that appeared throughout the collection. Highlights include a hot-pink gown with an expansive, silver detail on the shoulder, and a stately, voluminous soft-purple cape that appeared draped over a sequined dress, finished with a large bow.
Gavin Rajah will kick off the first official day of the Joburg Fashion Week, on Thursday, 09 November, with what is sure to be a groundbreaking show at the forum | the campus, in Bryanston at 6pm. Click here to purchase tickets