the problem with menswear
Last year I read a post by a fellow South African menswear blogger, Marco Riekstins. It was written in 2011 and most everything he says in the post is still painfully relevant. For that reason, I decided to write my own piece. I think it is important to continue this discussion until we, as an industry, start to really tackle the issue. Here it is.
The Stagnation of the South African Menswear Industry
I was never fashionable. On my first trip to London in 2006 I wore cargo pants and one-strap sandals. I remember a particularly yellow shirt with red flames on the sleeves, which I wore to Harrods. It’s not a memory I enjoy revisiting. Whenever we went shopping, my mother would urge me too look at jeans but for some reason I absolutely refused. I would NOT wear them. It wasn’t as if I was trying and failing to be fashionable, I simply had no awareness of clothing or any interest in having such awareness. The turning point came in 2007 – my final year of primary school – when finally, out of sheer determination to have my mother stop pestering me about wearing jeans, I tried a pair of denims on. I don’t remember where they were from but rest assured they were nothing fancy. I do remember that they were a light blue wash, straight leg, low rise and that I felt amazing. Then I bought a pair of Vans and a knit hoodie and the reaction I got to my new look at school the next day was the beginning of the love affair I’ve had with fashion for the past six years – a love affair that has recently been marred by the stagnation of the menswear industry in South Africa.
There is a common misconception that South African men have no interest in fashion. I too labored under this impression for some time until I began to become more interested in the workings of the fashion industry. Since then, I have come to learn that – with the exception of some of our more conservative members of the male population – the vast majority of South African men are in fact far more aware of the clothes they put on their back than we give them credit for. Granted, an interest in fashion does not guarantee successful execution thereof but that isn’t necessarily their fault. Nor is it necessarily a fault at all. Some people just aren’t inclined to dress for anything other than comfort and practicality and that is their prerogative. However, those men who do wish to dress for more aesthetic purposes are being let down by an industry that does not present, foster or encourage creativity in the way men dress.
So where and how did this stagnation begin? Why is it being perpetuated? I’ve asked myself these questions for the better part of five years and I still cannot come up with a definitive answer. To be honest, I believe it’s a bit of a chicken vs the egg problem. But if I must draw a starting point, let me express my theory in this way:
1. First, it is widely assumed men will not wear anything other than boardshorts and plakkies on the weekend and some chinos and a shirt to work…
2. So media houses stick to conservative, unimaginative and safe fashion features so as not to scare off their supposedly conservative male audiences…
3. Men see these editorials and believe conservatism is the only acceptable approach to fashion…
4. Therefore men only buy certain clothes (hello perpetuation of point 1).
5. As per common business sense, retail buyers only bring in more of the merchandise which sells…
6. which forces designers to only create certain types of merchandise if they want to make any sort of retail impact…
7. which in turn means media houses have no alternative to conservative fashion – even if they DID want to feature anything other than suits and preppy chic in their editorials.
Hey presto! Your menswear industry is stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of conformity with a tragic lack of innovation.
In a recent conversation with a jewelry-designer friend of mine, she made the assertion that “whoever controls the media controls the minds.” We need only look towards magazines like American Vogue to see that this is true. Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, is regarded as the most powerful figure in American fashion for the simple reason that she controls every facet of Vogue magazine. The clothes featured in Vogue sell. The designers backed by Vogue make it big. The people profiled in Vogue are seen as beacons of style. Too often I hear the following: “oh that’s just because its Vogue magazine.” Sure, but what is Vogue magazine without its editors, stylists, photographers and writers? The legendary status of Vogue was created by the vision of the people who work for it. Their ideas about what fashion is and how it should be presented to consumers created the icon it is today. I like to think that local industry professionals are as passionate about what they do as their international counterparts but if they are, their work is not reflecting that passion. My question is why there isn’t a counterpart to Vogue in menswear? Not even the menswear editions of Vogue share the status of their sisters. More pertinently still, is why there is no such media powerhouse in the South African menswear industry?
GQ South Africa is perhaps the only publication worth mentioning in a piece dedicated to the discussion of local menswear. Being the only magazine that runs regular fashion editorials, it houses the single most prominent masthead in local menswear - a position fortified by the recent launch of its semi-annual GQ Style. The problem is that the magazine only caters towards men of a certain age and income bracket and with more traditional menswear sensibilities. But whatever happened to the rest of the male population? What about the youth? What about boys on budgets? What about men who want clothes more avant-garde than silver suits and preppy chic? I respect what GQ does but it is not all-encompassing of the many possibilities for menswear. No magazine could be. Which is why men’s fashion media needs to be democratized. If true innovation and creativity is to be fostered, we need a varied media.
But even a varied media would mean nothing without clothes to suit those variations. We have a multitude of talented designers in this country but as Marco Riekstins pointed out, none of them want to work in menswear. And who can blame them? There is no support for the avant-garde in our industry. The one or two collections which do exhibit a modicum of innovation lack craftsmanship and are not presented in a way that is appealing to consumers.
Elle magazine has taken a vested interest in supporting local talent through their several Rising Star initiatives, which is great for womenswear but then again this piece isn’t about womenswear, is it? Where is the support for talent which will filter into the menswear industry? Why has the men’s media not taken the same initiative as Elle? It is the imperative of those with the platform and resources to do so, to start developing structures which will grow the sort of talent and expertise which will represent the future of South African menswear. This is necessary NOW.
Instead of supporting the local designers we do have, more and more I have seen the media (including bloggers) trump up international brands to the point of superstardom. By fan-girling to death over Topman, Zara and (soon) River Island, we crush the status of local menswear brands. Instead of tweeting our excitement about H&M possibly landing here, why don’t we tweet about Stiaan Louw? What people fail to realize is that by allowing international brands like those mentioned to sink their teeth into our market, we destroy any chance of building the local fashion economy. Young designers don’t have the resources to compete with multinational corporations who produce their goods for cheap (another problem entirely) and mark them up by a couple of hundred percentage points. Anyone who has seen those brands’ stores in their native countries will know that the goods they send us are from the back-end of the season and of sub-par quality. Which means we get force fed low-quality goods at a price parading as “affordable for an international brand”. Just because its from England doesn’t mean you should pay R600 for it when its only worth a fraction of that price.
I love fashion. Moreover, I love men’s fashion. But my country isn’t inspiring me to love it more. I know that there is so much diversity in our population - so many possibilities. Unfortunately, very little of that diversity makes it into the light of mainstream consciousness – I find that to be a tragic failure. If we, as a national community of fashionable men, are to move forward from this dormancy there is a lot that must change. If I might be so bold as to summarize our industry’s problem in one word, it would be: lazy. We are lazy to truly push the envelope because let’s face it, it is far easier to just stick to the status quo and hope that somewhere along the line things will get interesting. I know, because I am guilty of the very same laziness. I decided to write this piece because I hope that those who see it will be inspired to do better just as I was recently inspired to do better myself. So here’s what I propose:
Let’s start focussing on real forward-thinking ideas. Let’s feature local designers in our fashion editorials. Let’s praise men who are truly pushing the boundaries of what we accept as menswear and give them a greater platform. Let’s show men that there’s more to a wardrobe than beachwear and workwear and that suits with crazy patterns or brogues with neon soles aren’t the only way to push the envelope. Let’s stop stagnating and start creating an industry we can be proud of. Let’s go.