Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The politics of apolitical fashion

David Tlale's fashionable take on a public protest pic by Simon Deiner
Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton is an odd phenomenon. Not only is it an architectural or spatial peculiarity with all its nods to fallen European empires, but the odd mix between functioning as a shopping mecca and tourist hub, guaranteed by the ugliest tribute to Nelson Mandela in the form of a grotesque oversized statue, somehow captures the worst aspect of our culture or society. It embodies our hubristic reimagining of who we are as a nation, which is somehow realised in a tasteless confluence of misleading visual iconography.

This isn’t a new thought. Yet it buries itself prominently in my mind while waiting for David Tlale’s show to start in the square. Tlale’s shows are always one of the highly anticipated ones at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg. He always has a surprise up his sleeve; whether it is arriving on the ramp on a Harley-Davidson, minting collector gold coins bearing his effigy or bombarding us with a hundred fashion looks paraded on the bodies of opera singers and actors. What would Tlale do next?
I turn my gaze to the blue sky, imagining him parachuting on to the square or arriving by helicopter.
The anticipation of a fashion show is not only part of the ritual but can sometimes be the most entertaining aspect. The fashionistas milling about in their neon and polka dot socks (a must-have) look slightly lost and out of place in this setting; without front row seats to perch on and goody bags to keep us entertained with an assortment of useless swag to pass on to lesser folk as mementoes of the high life, we had no idea where to locate ourselves. We were displaced.
Where was the ramp?

Democratising access to the fashion experience isn’t something you would immediately expect from Tlale, though he has pursued many diffusion-line products from shoes to bags, and affordable ranges for large retailers so that everyone can enjoy a piece of his design genius.
The Saturday shoppers and tourists floating about with cameras and backpacks seem unaware of what kind of experience they are in for and probably do not know of the historical significance of the square in the history of fashion weeks – the first SA Fashion Week took place in a tent on this location in the late Nineties.
Those were different times. There wasn’t a media frenzy around it, designers produced OTT collections (they didn’t have businesses to support), the dressing culture that street style bloggers have cultivated didn’t exist, and people watched the shows with their eyes rather than through the filter of smartphones.
Most of these changes have been positive or have simply shifted the way the fashion show spectacle is consumed. Tlale is perhaps one of the few designers who has an innate talent for understanding and delivering on a fashion spectacle; it may have taken him some time, and many OTT froufrou lace numbers, but he seems to have twigged that it’s not only about the clothes; the drama is linked to the presentation, not just the styling of the garments. For this reason he advances his persona as an indelible part of his brand and shows.

It is not unexpected therefore that his show commences with him leading a group of quasi “protesters” on to the square, with some fashion models in pseudo Herero women’s wear trailing behind him. The pictures that emerge after the show reveal that the procession began inside the mall, past his shop.
Processions are a popular motif in our culture; this stylised one brings to mind those in William Kentridge’s works like Shadow Procession or others where silhouetted figures are collaged on to yellowed texts. Athi-Patra Ruga’s White Women of Azania processions that conclude with him bursting his ballooned outfits also come to mind. This leitmotif in Kentridge’s work collapsed forced migrancy with a culture of protest that bared strong references to black silhouetted figures in Russian constructivist posters. But, of course, this motif has renewed significance in our post-apartheid culture with spates of protest marches taking place regularly in city centres and townships.
No doubt this is what Tlale is responding to; however, the slogans on the signboards – “Fashion on the rise” and “The Mother land” – imply that the designer’s pseudo fashion protest is more in support of an entity such as African fashion (does anyone disfavour it?) rather than against one. Peculiarly, the procession concludes with the designer leading his models towards a row of luxury Mercedes-Benz cars, the sponsor of the show. Juxtaposed with real-life protests that fill our streets, or the tragic Marikana one that remains ever-present, which are linked to poverty and exploitation, Tlale’s display is unwittingly in bad taste, as he parades and celebrates symbols of wealth – luxury cars and upmarket clothing. Presumably, Tlale intended to convey an alternate image of “Africa”, countering the stereotypical ones depicting poverty as flogged by the West, but his performance evinced a lack of political sensitivity. Perhaps he was offering escapism, a kind of parallel fashionable reworking of a staple public spectacle that has become a growing cause of distress, even among the middle classes who fear being unseated by this burgeoning mass of angry poor people.

Some believe fashion offers a retreat from politics, or at least this has been the prevailing thinking about those who revel in appearances rather than the substance of things. Certainly, Tlale’s fashion “protest” felt hollow, like the unsightly Madiba statue that dominates this epicentre of African consumerism, and it didn’t quite conceal the fact that his collection was just a handful of garments that might have “died” a slow death on the ramp – though exquisitely tailored they weren’t a cohesive and bold body of work. He has set a high standard for himself that we hold him to.

It is likely that the dedicated followers of fashion who descended on the Sandton Convention Centre to watch all the other fashion week shows were more than willing to lap up whatever kind of fashion escapism was on offer. Things are precarious at the moment. We find ourselves in an upside-down world that doesn’t add up; where sports heroes are revealed to be gun-happy bullies that annihilate their beloveds out of supposed fear and paranoia, our hard-earned taxes are used to fit a R245 million bill for a quasi-Zulu kingdom for our president, the global financial crisis seems to have finally impacted on our economy, planes go missing never to be seen again, homophobia and sexism are on the rise and the Russia/America stand-off appears to have been reignited.

It is during times of such great uncertainty that the placement of a hemline seems both frivolous and absolutely necessary. Fashion always finds new purpose in dark times, whether designers harness it or provide a seductive distraction from it. Most of the designers at fashion week opted for the latter by advancing multiple future realities that project us into design idylls were everything works – at least colour combinations. Granted, some of these alternate realities were a little dark – such as Preu’s menswear collection inspired by Gothic architecture which featured elongated white ties that added to the drama of the collection, or Benazeer Muller’s futuristic post-apocalyptic menswear collection featuring ripped black garments and backpacks with lit screens showing X-rays of human skulls. These moody collections by two young emerging designers were counteracted by hyper-happy collections featuring neon and this popular blurring of lines between high fashion and sportswear by Ditiro Mashingo and Rich Mnisi, two young designers who showcased their work on the AFI Fast Track show.
Laduma's MaXhosa collection
pic by Simon Deiner

Veteran fashion designer Marianne Fassler also worked with a bright palette, contrasting prints and textures with a distinctly Afro vibe (what else?), exploiting the ethnic slant in fashion, something Fassler has done so well. For Fassler this immersion in textures, prints and vivid colour wasn’t all about providing tactile escapism; several garments paraded quite obvious nods to our status quo, such as a Madiba print and a motif of the African continent appearing with the word “Unite”. The sentiment felt slightly dated, bringing to mind the Afrochic vibe of the early noughties when designers scrambled to assert their African roots.
The remarkable MaXhosa collection was easily the highlight of the week, and the Laduma design house didn’t draw on a generic Afrovibe. A more concrete link via a short fashion film established a connection between the collection of brightly coloured patterned knitwear and  Xhosa traditions, summoning the initiation ritual where “you get to choose to be a man”. Interestingly, this rite of passage has served as the means to deal with the shifting politics around the construction of masculinity, as seen in many artists’ work from Nicholas Hlobo to Ruga, who created an alternative rite of his own in iLulwane.

Laduma probably sidestepped the politics of this act a bit in his film, but in extending his collection to include women’s wear with long wrap cardigans that echoed the silhouette of the blankets that initiates wear during this rite of passage, he allowed women to enter the conversation. Not that anyone was too hung up on what the collection might have meant in terms of gender politics; the quality of the knitwear, the bold prints and styling of the garments are what sent cold chills of excitement and pride down the front row.
This blurring between women’s and menswear collections was also noticeable at Adriaan Kuiters + Jody Paulsen’s show, in which this duo created a cohesive range for both sexes that were united by the same vibe; a kind of slothful, laissez-faire Cape Town look with oversized patterned jumpers or checked shirts teamed with oversized faux-fur clutches and thick coats with high collars to hide behind when the Cape Town wind and rain encroaches during the chilly season.

Avant Apparel’s collection was inspired by the burnt orange and magenta leaves that await us in autumn. It’s not the most original or inspired theme they have cooked up but some of the OTT evening wear numbers fashioned from appliquéd leaves in dark purple tones and in white for a showstopper number were undeniably gorgeous, romantic garments that looked like they were plucked from a John Millais painting or work by a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of British artists influenced by Romanticism. This band of painters almost always painted women with pallid skins, and wearing delicate clothing that amplified their fragility. A skin-tone translucent dress supported by a wire pannier strongly evoked this painterly aesthetic. It’s a purely escapist piece. It’s not only unlikely ever to be worn off the ramp, but somehow reminds viewers of the beauty that is often obscured by an immersion in reality. The strong seasonal nod intrinsic to the collection also reminded us that however upside-down the world might appear right now, the natural order of things remains unchanged. Autumn and winter will come, and then it will be spring. - first published in The Sunday Independent, March 30, 2014

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