Durban, South Africa: The African Fashion Exchange (AFX) that has just been held in Durban, exceeded all expectations, the managing director of the KZN Fashion Council has said.

The three-day AFX which was hosted by the KZN Fashion Council brought together designers, crafters, manufacturers, buyers and industry experts had also brought the spirit of African fashion and creativity to the world.

“It was such a success. The feedback was that a very high standard was achieved. The audiences loved the fashions that were showcased and the speakers and panel discussions at the dozen knowledge-sharing sessions were also of a high standard and well-received, “said Nisha Thavar. There was a “good vibe” throughout the event with designers and exhibitors appreciating that they had been given a unique opportunity to showcase and exhibit their talents and crafts to potential customers.

Business contacts were made and orders are likely to be in the pipeline for some. “There was positive feedback all round. It proved that there was a real need for such an event in the province,” said Thavar, adding that planning would start soon on next year’s AFX. AFX project manager Xolani Zulu said there had been a great response from designers and crafters to get involved in the event which had unfolded at the Greyville Convention Centre. AFX had catered for emerging, emerged and established designs. They had come from around KwaZulu-Natal, elsewhere in South Africa and from other African countries.

The theme was “Africa By Design,” and as he told an East Coast Radio interviewer you can get to Africa by plane, by boat, you can even get there by a donkey “but rather get to Africa by design”. The message was to buy African and to support the local clothing and textile industry. “This is our time,” radio personality Vanessa Marawa said at the gala dinner on the first day of AFX.

The deputy mayor of the eThekwini Municipality, Fawzia Peer, told dinner guests that “we want fashion to be produced locally and be internationally recognised”. Guest speaker, Sihle Zikalala, the MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs said to applause that he hoped to one day see “Made In Africa,” labels on clothing.

He said AFX was at the heart of ongoing efforts to position the province as the mecca of fashion. “This is the Africa gateway where fashion meets business,” he said, urging African designers to take advantage of such platforms to increase their knowledge so that they can become competitive. “We must be the best. We must become confident in what we produce. We must provide quality. If we remain stagnant and do not become innovative, we will become history,” he said.

Dr Joy Ndlovu, chairperson of the KZN Fashion Council added there were many challenges of lack of skills and training in the fashion business. Most studies have shown that there were problems with accessing markets, funding, and getting the right sponsors. “We just want to open up the industry so people can know where to go to, and how to manoeuvre in this space. AFX is a good platform to teach designers how to become successful business people.”

The well-attended knowledge-sharing sessions provided delegates with an insight into the challenges and opportunities facing the clothing and textile industry. One of the issues that cropped up in several sessions was how South African culture was being hijacked-copied-by international brands. It was almost as if people did not appreciate what they had until someone else incorporated in their designs, one speaker said. While another speaker said such international companies had been “smart while everyone else was sleeping,” businesswoman and panellist Erika Elk advised designers to stay ahead.

“Get into the market as quickly as you can and establish your brand so when someone tries to rip you off, a whole community will say ‘that’s not cool because it belongs to someone else’,” she said. During a session on retailing, Kenneth Beja, the senior buyer at Edcon, said he no longer went to Paris to see the latest colours and fabric. “We need to have our own colour and fabric range without following the world,” he said, adding that he would love to have a local show with designers and weavers so he could take ideas for next year’s range.

“My main mission is to make sure people get jobs, which is why we are producing locally,” he said. He was currently working with a Durban designer on an ethnic range. One speaker, Lester Bouah of Trade and Investment KZN, responsible for export development and promotion, advised designers on how to get into the export market-and stay in.”No one is an island; we have to work together to drive business. I can help you, but you also have to help yourselves,” he said. Meanwhile, down in the exhibition hall, several up-and-coming designers had entered a competition to make a skirt for Vanessa Marawa in just one hour. The designer who made the skirt the celebrity loved the best, got a brand new sewing machine from one of the exhibitors, while the designer who made the skirt that the KZN Fashion Council board liked, won another sewing machine. A new aspect of this year’s AFX was the involvement of schools in the event, the chairperson said. Grade 12 pupils from several schools had been invited to the various Saturday sessions, including a rural school, the Sibusisiwe Technical Comprehensive High School in Umbumbulu, on the KZN South Coast.“We have formed a new partnership with the schools to get kids from an early age to get interested in the textile and fashion industry. This has opened their eyes as to consider the fashion industry as a career option for pupils,” Ndlovu added.