In a resounding start to the official Joburg Fashion Week calendar, South African fashion-industry pioneer Gavin Rajah introduced his Spring/Summer 2024 collection with an artist’s statement.
Delivering the statement to a crowd that was already rife with anticipation, renowned South African poet, Lebo Mashile, aptly describes the designer as a “towering tree of South African fashion”.
Titled Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the Dark Lioness”), the collection was a continuation of Rajah’s ongoing creative partnership with acclaimed South African artist, Zanele Muholi, reimagining elements of their seminal body of work of the same name.
First exhibited in South Africa in 2015, this ground-breaking collection of black-and-white photographs is a deep and layered project. Its vividly personal approach to addressing the politics of race, gender and representation earned Muholi international recognition. Muholi’s work is known for being as critical as it is gripping, confronting mistruths about history, and society’s relationship with conformity.
This show epitomized how different art forms can come together to address these topical issues.
Arguably, Rajah’s challenge in producing this collection was not in contriving a matching gravitas to Somnyama Ngonyama. It was in bridging Muholi’s art and his fashion practice – remaining true to his own design codes and producing a commercially viable collection.
This was a visibly exploratory project that demonstrated the most exciting thing about Rajah’s label – that he always has his eye cast outwards into the world, rather than settled on the often-insular frame of South African fashion and celebrity. Every detail, down to the decision to introduce it with an artist’s statement, points to Rajah’s research-driven approach to his artistry.
Mashile began by honouring Muholi in their absence, pointing to the multi-disciplinary artist’s contributions to South African art and discourse. Describing Muholi’s practice as “transgressive”, she defines what perhaps drew Rajah to Muholi’s work. Mashile harks back to the women who poured their “innovation” and “sweat” into the collection and goes on to honour trailblazing women in the room, such as Basetsana Khumalo and the Founder of Africa Fashion International, Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe – for their cultural contributions.
Models strode down the runway in manes of Afro hair, including one regal braid grown, making clear visual reference to the imagery in Somnyama Ngonyama. The show opened with a series of black and white ensembles, with Rajah gradually injecting colour. Starting with a beige skirt here and there, he then – as if he couldn’t help himself – let the colour burst through in vivid reds, and an expressive floral print in saturated shades of yellow and purple.
There was an everyday quality and timelessness to the collection that magnified its celebration of women and their historic contributions. Of course, Rajah’s signature couture gowns made their appearance, but the designer detoured into a more timeless, ageless ready-to-wear aesthetic.
Twice, Rajah embraces a mid-wash denim, perhaps referencing the material’s origins in blue-collar workwear. Key pieces included a subtly restrained column dress with a mildly sweeping cape. Appearing twice in solid shades of orange and a vivid red, it held a statuesque simplicity.
One of the last pieces to take the runway was a red, anorak-style jacket, playfully sewn together as a patchwork of red hearts with eyes in the centre. Eyes gazing back at the audience appear as one last link to Somnyama Ngonyama’s thematic engagement with visibility and the power of returning the gaze.
For many designers, the strength of their artistry lies more in the beautiful pieces that they make, and how they bring people together, than in conjuring up something deep and critical to say.
But there is always something to be said – and sometimes more fun to be had – when a collection challenges you to think. Gavin Rajah has always been very clever about tying a greater philosophy/theme into his collections, and articulately weaves the gravity of Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama into the collection without being too on-the-nose about it.