Asked to name a fashion capital of the world, Soweto would be low on the list. Faced with decades of political upheaval and civil unrest, South Africa's heavyweight issues have hardly made it the place for something as flighty and frivolous as fashion.
Until now. Freed from the constraints of media coverage being dominated by political and human-rights issues since the collapse of apartheid, South Africa is pushing its image as the African continent's cosmopolitan centre. And its wardrobe has been given a revamp to match.
Take 24-year-old Cape Town-born designer Craig Native. A few years ago, he was a gifted footballer studying sports science, when a knee injury made him swap to fashion design. But he couldn't have imagined that, by 2000, he'd be tipped as one of the names to watch in his country's booming fashion market.
He certainly wouldn't have thought he'd be pals with US rock star Lenny Kravitz. At Kravitz's Durban concert last March, Native tried to make a cheeky delivery of a few of his clothes backstage. Blocked by a security guard, he didn't expect his clothes to get near the star. "The guard said Lenny was here for the tour, not to buy clothes," he says. "But then Lenny jumped on stage in my shirt. I was numb for the next half hour."
After the show, Kravitz asked Native to knock up a wardrobe for his next tour, with each item in 10 different colours. Just six months out of college, Native now has several national design awards under his studded belt and his phone never stops. But while his rise is the stuff of Disney, it's also reflective of South Africa's new drive to make its mark on the international fashion scene.
This week sees the first South African Fashion Week fully unhindered by political upheaval. Three years of building a professional platform for the event will now see worldwide fashion press and big-store buyers attending in significant numbers. The event, which will showcase the work of some 20 designers - including David West, Maya Prass, Lialize and Jacques van der Watt - will be held in Johannesburg's new pounds 56m Sandton Convention Centre, built in part with South African Fashion Week in mind.
"There is," says Lucilla Booyzen, the founder and director of South African Fashion Week, "a surge of creative talent in young South African fashion design, which is at last unencumbered by the problems of the past. Over the past five years, there's been an amazing energy. Because South Africa is a long way away, its fashion tends to get overlooked, but it's a gem waiting to be picked up."
The recent arrival of a 24-hour fashion TV channel and the fact that eight international …