Interview With South Africa’s Top Fashion Insider, Renato Palmi

renato-palmi-right Tell [our] readers who you are? Renato: I am a white South African male of Italian parents. I live in the costal town of Durban. I am an academic but also a business developer for the clothing and fashion sector. you do extensive research on South Africa’s fashion industry. Why the keen interest?
Renato: It is a rather interesting journey into fashion and clothing research. My working career began in the corporate sector. I was involved in the printing industry where I ran a small family printing concern, I then moved into electronic publishing. A few years ago I was given the opportunity to enter the academic environment and did a Master Degree in Global Economic Development. I always had an interest in clothing and my research started with looking at the local and global clothing sectors [as you know in South Africa many clothing companies over the years have closed because they could not compete with the cheaper Chinese imports.]

While researching this economic sector I began to think about the fashion industry and the role of fashion designers in the complex web of the global and local clothing industry. I began to establish contact within the South African fashion sector, started to attend fashion events and meet with designers. I have now written a book which is with the publishers at the moment. The book looks at the role of fashion designers within the context of the clothing industry and how they contribute to the economics of this sector.

Fair Trade & Ethical FashionAnother area of long standing interest I have is fair trade and ethical fashion … and have began to lecture on fair trade/ethical fashion to students as well as lecturing on fashion branding, marketing and sales within the fashion sector. My skills and experience in the corporate sector has provided me with a wealth of information relating to sales & marketing. So what is it you seek to achieve?
Renato: I want to establish networks and contact with foreign boutiques that may have an interest in stocking South African fashion design[s]. I want to network with fashion/ clothing organisations and bodies to build up relationships for developmental and transnational opportunities … such as facilitating designers to attend fashion events, fashion/clothing trade events to market SA design.

I also wish to have access to attend conferences to talk and present on SA fashion/clothing sector. I also want to create stronger relationships with the fashion industry throughout Africa to establish collaborative networks and projects to promote both SA and African design. I really think that we in Africa must work closer together and I can facilitate this.

Too Much Egos and Fashion Weeks in S.A. us [narrow in] on the fashion industry in South Africa. What would you say is the current state of [South] Africa’s fashion industry? Renato: Very complex and very fragmented. There are so many egos and people with financial backing that are exploiting young inexperienced designers. At the moment one of the big debates is the role of Fashion Weeks. We have about 4-6 Fashion Week events in South Africa mostly controlled by two companies that are always fighting for space, sponsorship and in the middle of all of this the designers suffer. The debate in South Africa is, should there be so many Fashion Weeks or only one?

My research indicates that the designers want as many opportunities and platforms to promote their creations. Due to the politics of fashion if a designer shows in one event that is controlled by company (A), then the designer cannot show the same range in another event that is controlled by company (B). Another problem is the cost of local designed content. Most South African consumers look at price and because of the imports from China, and other Asian countries being far cheaper than local manufactured design consumers are not supporting South African designers in the manner that they should.

Another issue that we are trying to address is the lack of business skills by fashion designers. They come out of a fashion college and have the ability to create lovely designs but have no business skills. We are trying to regulate the industry and develop stronger business skills in the educational schools.

If anyone monitored the fashion industry in South Africa they would get the impression that the industry is really buzzing and developing but most of the hype is around the glitz of fashion and not the business of fashion. So another important issue that must be addressed is to educate the media so that they look at the developmental opportunities fashion has for South Africa. This is where I come in, through my research, articles I write and the development of business networks with designers.

African Designers and International Markets has been a lot of push, particularly from South Africa’s Fashion industry, to break into the international markets, particularly the USA. Do you think this goal is attainable?

Renato: Some fashion designers [very few] have broken into the international market but for the vast majority this is a dream. I don’t think it is because of our lack of creative talent. It comes back to business skills …. and production facilities. For example last year at one big Fashion Week a local designer was given the opportunity to produce about 300/400 garments that he had showcased at the fashion event for an export order. The designer could not do the order because he did not have the money nor the experience and facilities to produce the 300/400 garments within the timeframe that the buyer wanted. Therefore it is imperative that we get our production skills in place and then move into the export market.

Here again is where people with my skills are trying to help. Internationally more South African designers are being given the opportunity to showcase at international fashion events and there is so much hype about this but we have to ask the question and then what? There is very little continual progress for the designer after participating at an international event so what is the goal of doing these events? This sounds in contradiction to what I said earlier about wanting opportunities to facilitate more exposure at international fashion events for SA designers but the difference would be to develop their business and establish business opportunities through participating in these foreign events.

Getting African Fashion Products into the USA.[Okay] So, in your observations and experience, what do you believe are the real challenges that preclude South African Fashion Products from being exported into the USA?
I think the exchange rate affects us. But it is also the lack of skills in mass production, the lack of business skills, and the difficulty of local production. As you know buyers are always driving the price down and most designers cannot meet these demands. There is an alternative, designers can get their designs made in say Asian countries but they will then not have control over the quality and delivery of their products and I really believe that all production should remain in this country to make sure that the garment is a truly proudly South African product.

Therefore,it is imperative that we develop clusters, incubators and systems that can help market, produce and exports local design content but this is not happing at the moment. Another issue is the ability to maintain quality. A designer can make a one-off garment that is excellent quality but when they get into mass production the quality seems to diminish.

Africa’s Strong Fashion Brands There is big talk on branding and importance of brands. Is Africa able to build strong fashion brands like the West? Renato: A good question. There is a lot of debate about what is a South African brand? We have I think exploited the “South African”design brand whatever that means … we need to develop a brand mix, something that foreigners and South Africans will feel comfortable in wearing, but at the same time having a very interesting unique brand. I think we are slowly getting there … at a Fashion Week I have just attended I saw the development of interesting design brands from the younger designers … so this is a work in progress development. Okay so let’s play a game and you tell us what comes to mind when I say these words? Best South African designer?
Renato: Gavin Rajah, but because he has a high profile … there are so many skilled designers in the informal economy who have no access to the market … in answer I don’t think there is one great/best SA designer. Ultimate South African Supermodel?
Renato:You got me here … I have no idea. Ultimate South African Style Icon?
Renato: Dion Chang … he has an interesting mix. Best South African Fashion Movie?
Renato: I don’t know … we have not had a SA fashion movie … the film the Devil wears Prada went down very well …. you made me think we need to develop and produce a SA fashion movie. Best African Musician? Okay we really mean both talent and a healthy fusion of African fashion/style in their music videos or persona?
Renato: I think Ladysmith Black Mandasa. Okay, let me shift your attention real quick to the “brand” question again. [Most] are saying South Africa’s Gavin Rajah will be the fashion brand that breaks into the international markets? Do you agree?
Renato:He has already … but his style is not for the mass market … of course he is a good ambassador for South Africa and has worked very hard to build his reputation but to say if he will be an example of South African fashion I am not sure … He is a great man (infact he has written a comment for my book). . . Any other brands you think that has what it takes to appeal to Ladybrille readers [African and non-African women] in the West?
Renato: I am beginning to see some interesting creative brand development by younger designers. There are two guys who have a label called ZION and they are doing great stuff, others such as a young black designer whose label is Black Pepper has a great style and he is such a hard worker but is finding it difficult to enter the market and I am working with him in addressing his marketing needs. I think the next year or two we are going to see many younger South African designers begin showcased and developing great brands if they are able to sustain their operations.

Ladybrille Magazine

Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.

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  1. varun says:

    nice range!!Shawls and Scarves

  2. Anonymous says:

    It's very interesting! Thank you for this fashion interview!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Do you know who is the top fashion designer?

  4. Omodudu says:

    interesting interview, keep up the good work

  5. Chi says:

    Very informative interview, Ladybrille. He's sort of like actress Charlize Theron in a sense that they're both South Africans that love fashion.

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