The concept is an Atelier where people can come together to learn how to refashion and repair clothing. Teaching people to value clothing by establishing a local movement where groups of people come together, and under the guidance of a creative (re)learn sewing skills.
About two months ago we did a little shoot and I had all sort of plans creating a statement installation / performance at Night of a 1000 Drawings highlighting the process that goes in to creating a dress. I was to collaborate with an amazing visual artist and exhibit alongside some my favourite and most inspiring local designers and creatives. We all had conceptualised ideas around sustainability whether it be in our use of material, the actual production of a garment or finding ways to sustain our creative process in a time where such things are not valued.
I truly hope we get to realize this show when all returns to some form of normality, but it will be different, more personal and with a deeper layer added to it. I think or hope this crisis will give birth to something bigger, we need to learn from this. We need to be better, to do better and to stop pretending that everything is ok ... because it clearly is not
Today marks the 7th anniversary of the Rana plaza collapse and the start of the Fashion Revolution movement. Seven years and exactly how much has changed? The outbreak of COVID-19 has only highlighted how bad things have become in places like India: retrenched factory workers fleeing from overcrowded cities with nothing but the clothes on their backs, hoping for sanctuary in their home towns, being assaulted and mistreated on the way and dying next to the road.
All this because the business model - this fast fashion consumer culture that we have been brainwashed to believe is normal - is in awfully broken. It is not sustainable. It forces humans to work like slaves, it destroys the environment during the process of its production and leaves lasting traces long after the need for it to exist has passed.
During this past month that we have been forced to slow down and stop what we were so destructively busy doing, the earth has started to recover - skylines and rivers have become clear, and wildlife has popped up in unexpected places. The earth wants to and has the capacity to bounce back if we can just give it a moment, but the impact that the slowing down the global economy has had on the poorest of the poor is not such a hopeful image.
On a more local level things have developed differently. South Africa is a nation of entrepreneurs, local designers have been trained by circumstance to think outside the box and to MAKE IT WORK. So we have started making masks and medical kit. We have shared resources and ideas and supported one another – individually together, as it were.
It has been such a weird journey selling masks with a myriad of reactions from extremely supportive to utterly negative. It has woken a continuous struggle with the need to defend myself and justify my actions… and this is where it ties into the Fashion Revolution (in case you’ve been wondering)
Backstory: A while ago I did a pop-up sale in Brooklyn which is an upmarket shopping area in Pretoria. While browsing though my collection a lady asked quite sincerely “If it is made is South Africa why is it so expensive?” This was quite a light bulb moment for me because the average consumer does not know what goes into producing a garment or creating a brand that creates multiple sustainable jobs.
So yes; we are more expensive than shit imported from Bangladesh this is because we pay our staff fair wages. In many cases this is above what the government prescribes as minimum wage because the staff we employ are worth more than a minimum wage! They help develop the brand identity and even though they are not always publicly celebrated by the bands, they have in many cases become like family.
A couple of days ahead of the national lockdown our studio was split into bite sized pieces and moved into our homes. Lackson, who has been with SIES!isabelle since 2011, now has 3 sewing machines and other necessary equipment in his flat on the edge of Hillbrow where he is working alongside is wife and brother to make masks. Andrew who usually sews for HerRitual got an overlocker to go with his straight stitch machine and is also making masks form his flat in Johannesburg.
And so we adapt and survive…
It is weird, because without any discussion most local designers' masks are kinda in the same price range. Which might mean that more than one of us did the math and figured out that this is the minimum that we can change and still be sustainable. By this I don’t mean that this is what we are paying our machinists right now, but this is what we need to charge to keep paying out machinists and support staff indefinitely.
SIES!isabelle has always been a socially minded brand encouraging mentorship and working together with other creatives to build the industry as a whole. Same as most local designers, we have participated in and donated to our fair share of charity events. Making money off a pandemic has never been part of the master plan. True to our brand philosophy we have shared our patterns online as well as sewing instructions, we have donated masks to organisations and the public, and we will continue to do so. We will also support other designers creating because to paraphrase one of them – there is a place in the sun for all of us!
With our thoughts toward the post-pandemic future, how ever far away it may be, I want to urge everyone who has supported us during this time to continue shopping mindfully and to always be aware of the hands that made your clothes.
I find the South African fashion industry incredibly inspiring and so saturated with talent. Though in the past year I have learnt that having a well-curated collection of product might insure sales but working with like-minded people who share your values and vision is the key to the venture’s sustainability.
The initial concept of FABRICATE studio was to establish a network of local creatives. As much as we compete internally for sales we collectively strive to build a stronger local fashion industry . This way we can start collectively competing with bigger players rather than each other. Self-serving enterprises are not going to survive the next revolution in retail. The landscape is rapidly changing and by learning from each other we have a much greater chance of success.
This turbulent time in retail encourages entrepreneurs to be inventive and FABRICATE boutique became the platform where designers and clients could interact. Traditionally this relationship has not been nurtured, but a shift in how the value of something is determined has guided us to reevaluate this status quo. We have become more likely to invest in something made by someone you know.
We launched FABRICATE studio boutique pop-up store in Design Quarter in November 2018. I have learnt a whole lot in the last year, made some expensive mistakes and met some insightful people. By no means do I think I have this story figured out, but I do have a fairly good idea of where I want to take this adventure.
As much as the fashion industry is going online internationally, the South African market is still a quite wary of this transition. Though FABRICATE I would like to gradually ease shoppers into this new way of shopping. Our website brings the rails of clothing alive and becomes the most influential point of interaction where shoppers can browse from the comfort of a couch. The shop itself needs to be focused on creating an experience rather than just making sales.
Customers are no longer just buying a dress they are subscribing to a new way of shopping for clothing. This interaction needs to be more intimate and a lot more exciting than the mass consumption model that we have become accustomed to. This process starts with introducing the designers to the people supporting them.
I have been selling dresses for 15 years at the height of the curve more than 100 units per week, that is a large amount of clothing! It is still the highlight of my week when I meet someone who has purchased one, or usually a couple, of my dresses. They always seem to be quite surprised (and happy) to meet the designer. My personal favourite was when a lady did a full on happy dance and gave me a hug, my second is each time someone who walked in looking uncomfortable in her own body, looks into the mirror and smiles unselfconsciously.
Designers are, for the most part, an interesting bunch and by interacting with them one gets a much greater appreciation for their creations. It gives you an insight into their way of thinking allows you more freedom to experiment with their designs and own the pieces on a more intimate level. This is all part of the journey to finding your own style and establishing your own fashion identity.
This relationship is naturally a two way connection. For as much as I want to show you the person behind the creation I would also like to get as much constructive feedback from clients as possible, because this is how designers grow. This is how creatives make more things that you like and want and stop wasting energy on the things that you don’t.
Transparency then goes a step further to where we share where and by who each piece of clothing was made. The global Fashion Revolution movement has recently started highlighting the plight of the garment worker. Locally we have such strict employment regulations that most designers adhere to much higher ethical standards than our international counterparts, but we don’t tell anyone about it! I came to the disparity this creates when I was once innocently asked “but it is made in South Africa, why is it so expensive?” The greatest expense to producing locally is labour. Most designers do production in-house with a team of machinists that become like family or outsource to small CMT (cut make trim) factories that are willing to do production runs suited to designers’ needs. These are militantly controlled by bargaining councils that make sure the machinists needs are catered to.
The hands that made your clothing are important and need to be honoured. Through putting a face to the person responsible for making your garment you add value to that piece and this in turn increases the lifespan of a garment. How likely are you to throw out a dress that a friend made for you than one your bought from a chainstore?
To tell our story we need intelligent voices. Fashion journalist who write articles that educate the readers, influences who realise that it is a serious faux pas to not wear local fashion to local fashion weeks, media partners that have a vested interest in building the local fashion industry because by building us you are securing a future for yourself.
A loss of faith in the advertising industry combined with the sheer volume of advertising that we are exposed to daily has changed also had a large impact what medium we should be focussing on to
On first day at fashion college we all got asked “why do you want to go into the fashion industry?” and many responded with the “passion for fashion” auto-answer. 18 years later I can vividly remember rolling my eyes and stringing together something equally insipid. Yet this passion has driven me to keep reevaluating and reinventing the way I do business, to keep creating things that I am proud of and to only participate in adventures that align with my ethos alongside people that have the same passion for fashion.
On an international level fashion weeks have started to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. There have been calls for fashion weeks to be scrapped in favour of climate protests. Some fashion weeks have caved, others have changes their mantra to suit this new eco-conscious trend and others still strut forth as if nothing is wrong.
But there is so much wrong with this industry - fashion weeks are merely the tip of the iceberg. A very visible tip. The tip that sells the rest of the spectacle - The tip that glamorizes one of the biggest polluting industries in the world - The tip that hides exploitation of natural as well as human resources.
Fashion week has thus become unfashionable.
That is an easy statement to make and the easy solution is then to advocate for an end to fashion and to the entire fashion industry as it stands today. For many this is unthinkable, and, as matters are at the moment, impractical. The fashion industry generates income for a vast amount of the world’s population and until a replacement for the capitalistic system has been established it is how matters need to continue.
In order to ensure we have a planet left filled with humans to appreciate designers’ creations, the industry needs to change its spots. The clothing industry needs to become sustainable. Fashion week, as the current face of this industry, needs to do more to make this a reality if they wish to stay relevant.
The first step would be to identifying achievable goals and making sure that all designers represented by fashion week change their business models accordingly. All the designers need to be telling the same story and thus all designers would need to be involved in establishing and enforcing these goals. This would be much akin to herding cats
The second would be to encourage collaborations across fields. Through connecting different industries, new solutions could be developed. This includes new fabrics created for recycled waste products and versatile pieces being designed for specific industries to limit the quantity of clothing required. Developing finishes for garments that can reduce the amount they need to be washed or increasing their longevity, keeping them out of landfills just a bit longer. Shaldon Kopman once referred to himself and all designers not just as designers but as outstanding problem solvers. I find this a very valid outlook and a skill that we need to employ if we wish to survive.
The more voices that get involved will also spread the message exponentially faster. Partnering with loud voices would be step three. Influencers, media, buyers and fashion week attendees need to all be supporting the industry they celebrate and feed from. Instead of wearing a set colour to fashion week we need to make sure they wear the designers’ clothing that they have come to support. Consumers need to be educated about what they are wearing, where it comes from and why it matters.
Next would be establishing new platforms on which to showcase this new mindset. To re-brand a runway as suddenly sustainable is near impossible. The whole identity of a catwalk-centred show consists of models with perfectly unattainable bodies flashing past, reducing a team of creatives’ works to mere minutes, leaving the audience hungry for their next fix. It perpetuates the problem and we need to start conceiving and implementing solutions. The type of platforms would need to be more accessible, relatable and would need to be cohesive to the story — this can be done in synergy with the eco-friendly ethos or in contrast (as Stella McCartney has done)
This shift in the fashion week mentality would not need to be tied down to bi-annual event. It could be a multifaceted continuous story being retold in many different voices on a number of different platforms the whole year round.
Fashion week as an event could become a recap of what has been done in the past six months, represented through film, photography, performance or exhibitions. This would elevate fashion to art through collaboration with other creatives creating something that is considered and relevant instead of a conveyor belt of fodder for the fickle fashionistas to pick through.
Many local designers don’t have the capacity, mentally, creatively or financially, to create more than one collection a year. But if this could be broken down into smaller projects running throughout the year, released when the designer is happy with the final product, it would be much more manageable. Smaller, more curated collections would also fit in to the “buy less, choose well” philosophy of climate activist Vivienne Westwood.
A vital addition to fashion week would be hosting discussions, seminars and starting dialogues around what fashion week, designers and other industry players are doing and what they would like to achieve. By collectively brainstorming problems and sharing resources solutions to industry wide problems would be easier to solve.
In the past there have been some really inspiring talks during SA Fashion Week. Establishing an incentivised platform on which we could monitor and follow up on the ideas generated though these lectures could inspire designers to continue these discussions throughout the year, developing them into tangible products and solutions.
This is a colossal and daunting vision but one that I truly believe in as vital to the sustainability of this industry. An industry that excites and inspires me, one allows me turn my creativity into something functional, into something that can positively contribute to my muse's life.
NOTES ON THE HEALTH OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY AND SOME IDEAS REGARDING WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO HIGHLIGHT IN MY NEXT COLLECTION...
One of the key elements of the creation process is the talented machinists and other crafters that help to construct the garments we design. It is a symbiotic partnership where one cannot function without the other. The exploitation of workers in the garment industry has been a hot topic in social media generating massive momentum with the hashtags #whomademyclothes and #fashrev along with the proudly South African #lovezabuyza. Documentaries made after the Rana Plaza collapse, such as The True Cost have also highlighted the plight of workers in the garment manufacturing industry
In a recently published paper concerning transparency in the fashion industry titled IT'S TIME FOR A FASHION REVOLUTION the following interesting points were made.
WE ARE THE FASHION REVOLUTION
Our main focus is to change the narrative surrounding fashion. To transform it into a force for good. We believe that it is everybody’s responsibility; not just the fashion designers, buyers and big retailer, but also the end consumer, who allows this state of affairs to continue by purchasing the “poly-blend T-shirts and runway rip offs”
Highlighting WHERE and by WHOM clothing is made is an integral part of the Fashion revolution’s mantra, telling the stories behind the clothing. Transparently is key to insure that consumers don’t unknowingly aid and abet dubious practices “and contribute to a future that is bad for people and the planet”
WE BELIEVE IN A FASHION INDUSTRY THAT VALUES PEOPLE, THE ENVIRONMENT, CREATIVITY AND PROFIT IN EQUAL MEASURE
As a fairly well established designer in the South African fashion industry I feel that is is my duty and privilege to help spread the message. I have always believed in creating sustainable jobs especially in the labour intensive clothing industry and thus I’ve kind of approached the topic back to front.
In a recent "Eureka!" moment I realised that being an ethical designer does not end with paying a fair wage, crediting all input in design and well as production and insuring that as little as possible waste that we generate ends up in landfills. I need to tell people; consumers, fellow designers and other members of this huge industry, what I’m up to.
The main reasoning behind it is so that my loyal and amazing customer know what they are buying and why they are paying more for my clothing than mass produced runway-ripoffs. I want them to share in the feel good glow; contributing, in whatever manner, to creating more a sustainable industry. I want this ethos to rub off on my fellow designers, most of whom are already ticking all the #fashrev boxes, and inspire them to talk about what they are doing.
By adding more voices to the movement and using any available platform to broadcast it the Fashion Revolution will happen. We have committed 30 years of fast fashion atrocities and created an unsustainable monstrous industry that generates trillions of dollars annually yet fails to honour its most key member.
AFRICAN HANDS CREATING CLOTHING FOR AFRICAN BODIES
South Africa sits at the tip of a culturally rich continent with access to a huge pool of talented craftsmen and -women. Before the rise of the industrial far East we used to boast many successful fabric mills and production houses. Our bodies do not fit the Chinese, European or American mould and we have been forced to feel shame rather than celebrate being healthy human beings. Our sense of style and ethnic signatures has been appropriated the world over, yet we still flock to support cheap, badly made Western fast fashion.
We need to change our own narrative and stop allowing ourselves to be exploited. We have the power to unite the local fashion industry and ignite a revolution to radically change the way we think about clothing.
In the past couple of months there has been a spark; a glimmer of light and we need to feed this. Local design talent is amazing; I’m not just blowing my own horn - have you seen what is out there? We have such a wide ranging spectrum of creatives that are working so hard, not just to make their own name and grow their own brand, but to create sustainable jobs, develop and transfer skills. We are known as a nation of entrepreneurs and creatives generally end up having to be entrepreneurs because we are so notoriously hard to employ, but we need to support one another if we want to develop and grow this movement.
In the clothing industry one of the opening whinges is that “we don’t have nice fabric”, “we don’t have the skills” or “that technology is too expensive”. The only way we are going to be able to have nice things is if we grow the industry to such a degree that the need is felt and filled by some other entrepreneurial spirit. In order to get there we need to support one another and do so LOUDLY.
I hate pictures of myself; as a designer I prefer to hide behind my clothing letting it be my face, but I've committed to taking selfies of my outfits as regularly as possible; tagging designers whose clothing I wear and using the appropriate hashtags #twinktwice #lovezabuyza. The goal behind this is to generate awareness around locally designed and created beautiful things.
I've have been posting, and will continue to do so, pictures of this adventure Instagram and occasionally sharing the initiatives on Facebook. I encourage you to join the movement, thank you for supporting local talent, but I urge you to broadcast it so that other will follow and that we can create awareness for the beautiful things that are sculpted in this country.
SIES!isabelle has evolved very organically mainly though word of mouth. We would like to reward our loyal #SIESambassadors by launching this competition to win a R5000 gift voucher to spend on SIES!isabelle clothing at any of the monthly Oh!PEN DAYS hosted at SIES!studio. The idea is fairly simple:
To start at the beginning; after finishing at lisof I worked as a shop slave (technically shop assistant, but “slave” was a more fitting a term) for a year. After that I was fortunate enough to secure a position at a Cut Make and Trim factory (CMT) that produced clothing in downtown Joburg. The owner; my first patterns lecturer, Erica de Greef, guided me exposing me to all the different elements in this insane industry. I worked under her guidance for the next four years learning more about the gritty, practical aspects of fashion than I ever thought existed!
The local fashion industry is fairly small and well guarded. Sure, anybody can walk into Golden Glow (a fabric wholesaler in Fordsburg) and buy fabric.. in theory.. In real life; it’s tricky. Who to speak to, how to tip, what to ask for, what to avoid, who has the best quality, best price, who is the most reliable, how to find out what fabric is being brought in just after the buyers return from the East and so much more. Having a mentor helps you avoid some very expensive mistakes. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve made my fair share of f#ckups, but it could have been worse.. On my own I would have struggled to survive one season.
On that note; I’ve also been blessed with an amazing financial guide, who happens to be my father and who happens to turn 60 tomorrow. Very few aspiring fashion designers value the importance of being able to draw up a little spread sheet showing their predicted income and expenses. Most fashion diplomas/degrees have only recently started adding business as a possible subject for students to take and then, in most cases, it is presented in such an abstract way that students don’t realise the value of it.
I want to say that I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also put in a fair amount of work.. luck and hard work do seem to go hand-in-hand.. But either way, I wish to continue the cycle of sharing. For the past six years I’ve accommodated interns from the various fashion design institutions/institutes in and around the country. Some helpers have been more successful that others; some have been chased away and some became close friends.
It is a huge risk letting these creatively charged, excitable and oh so young personalities into your space, into my creative bubble, into my secrets that I’ve spent the past decade gathering. I’ve been hurt, had designs stolen and copied; down to the pleats inside the pocket! But I still feel internship is a vital rite of passage between student and designer.
Photographs of some of my fabulous interns courtesy of Lingo Rodrigues and Jess le Roux, depicting some of the mad things we've done. So much love to all my interns, wherever you may be <3
Isabelle Lotter; clothing designer with a passion for sharing ideas