The annual Durban Fashion Fair (DFF), which is hosted by the eThekwini Municipality, plays a significant role in the revitalisation of Durban’s fashion industry by providing jobs for the city’s talented youth.

This year’s event, which takes place between 19 and 22 September at the Durban ICC, will showcase the work of 40 South African designers, and nine designers from the rest of the continent.

While there are some big names and established designers such as Amanda Laird Cherry, Karen Monk Klingstra and Chu Suwannapha, the largest portion of participating designers are under 35.

According to Stats SA, the national youth unemployment rate (15- to 34-year-olds) is approximately 40 percent. A large proportion are graduates.

Durban has a number of tertiary institutions, many of which teach fashion design

In light of this, Honourable Mayor of the eThekwini Municipality, Cllr Zandile Gumede, says she is particularly proud of the mentorship programme which culminates in the DFF.

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Each year, a group of young talents are handpicked and mentored in order to make their debut into this extremely tough sector a little easier. Overall, approximately 200 young designers have completed the DFF mentorship programme. This year, 20 mentees participated.

We may not have many large clothing manufacturers to snap up our new talents, but we do have a spirit of entrepreneurship that is alive and well

The theme for this year’s event is Afrofuturism

“We hear about the unfolding fourth industrial revolution and the impact of technology and disruption on companies. But, sometimes, it is also good to start with the basics and inculcate a belief in the future of the African fashion industry in our youth. We may not have many large clothing manufacturers to snap up our new talents, but we do have a spirit of entrepreneurship that is alive and well and could create thriving new businesses going forward,” says Gumede.

An example is Mxolisi Mkhize (House of St Luke) who made an entrance at the DFF 2012. “My business has grown from strength to strength. I have grown as a businessman and I see tremendous growth in revenue,” he says.

In just six years, Mkhize has created jobs for an illustrator, pattern maker, a personal assistant and three cutters and machinists

Treasure Cindi, who participated in 2012/2013, shares the benefits with others. “When I joined, I was fresh out of Varsity. The programme exposed me to the real and actual world of fashion and textiles. Through the DFF mentorship programme, the ‘TREASURE CINDI’ brand is now well known in Durban and around KZN. Every year, I take on one or two fashion interns from the fashion schools in Durban and I mentor them for four to six weeks during their school breaks. That way, I can show them how it really is in the real world and what to expect after graduating.”

Martin John Steenkamp, who participated in the mentorship programme in 2016, is also spreading his wings. “My label has grown so much. We have better equipment and I have employed someone to assist with the patterns, client consultations as well as production,” he says.

The DFF was launched in 2012 as part of the Durban Business Fair

It began with just six shows and 12 designers on a single evening and has since grown into a four night, standalone event that culminates in the DFF Recognition Awards which not only commend established players but identify and reward future talents.

Because of the importance of imparting both strong technical and business skills, it comes as no surprise that this year’s DFF, now celebrating seven years, will again be running alongside the Durban Business Fair.

Gumede explains that the eThekwini Municipality will be celebrating 20 years since the inception of the Durban Business Fair. As a child of the DBF, it seemed fitting that the DFF would support and celebrate it.

“During the day, the combined event will focus on the business programme. In the evenings, it will focus specifically on fashion. We will have an average of four fashion shows per day over four days,” she explains.

The DFF was created to wow not only the media, fashion buyers and the industry at large but also the general public – and this year is no different

In fact, it is even more important as the future of the fashion industry in Durban means developing support for locally produced clothing rather than a continued pre-occupation with imported brands.

The DFF provides an important opportunity to re-educate and even convert local consumers and to convince them that local designers have the talent and know-how to develop products that can compete with or even trump imports.

“The DFF is an important tool to showcase local talent and show the consumer the ability, the creativity, the quality and the pricing of locally produced garments,” Greg Wallis, owner of D&G Apparel and heads up this year’s mentorship programme, points out.

The future of the fashion industry in Durban means developing support for locally produced clothing rather than a continued pre-occupation with imported brands

Given that there are also indications that local retail chains are also returning to shopping locally, it is important to prepare young talents to seize opportunities.

Wallis attributes the uptick in local manufacture down to a poor rand/dollar exchange rate, reduced incentives for exports from the government of China where the majority of imports originate, higher domestic demand in China and long lead times to get orders on to shelves in South Africa.

“We can turn this to our advantage. By transferring skills and training young people, the catch-up can begin,” he says.

Wallis believes that, even in a flat economy where disposable income is constrained and spending on fashion is low, newcomers and existing members of the industry can do well.

They just have to box smarter!

For more information go to @Dbnfashion_fair or durbanfashionfair.com