As the academic year draws to a close, fashion design students have been busy finalising their end-of-year collections. For her fourth year project, Erin Hooper not only considered the environment but also the collapse of the Cape Town clothing and textile industry. When developing her final thesis for the Cape Town University of Technology, which will translate into an eight-look collection, she thought about how she could source locally, and produce her collection as ethically and sustainable as possible.  “I am conscious of the materials. I try to design garments with as much respect for the environment as possible,” she says. “This proved difficult as many local manufacturers, textile mills and factories no longer exist.”

After reading architect Ilze Wolff’s award-winning Unstitching Rex Trueform: The Story of an African Factory, Erin decided to create garments for women who once worked in the clothing factories in Cape Town. Ilze’s book is about a defunct factory in Salt River. Before the industry was destroyed by cheap imports from Asia, Cape Town was a hub for clothing manufacturing. Rex Trueform was one of the factories that provided employment, especially for women, and economic prosperity to local families in Cape Town for nearly 80 years.  “This has since changed and, like Rex Trueform, many factories are empty, inhabited by foreign call centres or by anyone else able to afford the rent,” says Erin.

According to women Erin interviewed for her project, Woodstock’s main road was once filled with the sound of sewing machines. One of these women, Ruth Jeftha, 73, got her first job in the industry when she was 18 years old. Another woman, Joyce Jonathan, 93, started working when she was 15, another at 13. Ruth’s first job was as a machinist in an underwear factory. She lived and worked in town. “I got up at 7.30am in the morning and was at work at 8am.” Her family was later forcibly removed to Grassy Park, more than 20 kilometres from the city’s centre.

Erin has used Ruth and other women’s stories about working in factories “to create a collection based on the narrative of the affected community”. She says, “I have designed a look for each woman that represents local, retired and retrenched factory workers. I apply aspects of their design aesthetic to my aesthetic as a designer inspired by their past experiences.”  Erin’s collection reflects “the opinions of retrenched factory workers and how they perceive factory closures, what their personal experiences were and their thoughts on the future of the local garment and manufacturing industry.”

For Ruth, who is “a suit kind of girl”, Erin has designed a soft pleated blue skirt with a tailored jacket. “I have listened to the women, and to what they like, and have looked at photographs…” The garments will be adorned with illustrations, photographs and embroidery. On Ruth’s bull denim jacket, Erin has printed images of Rex Trueform and of Ruth who says she “can sew a jacket with my eyes closed.” The fabrics are a combination of natural and vintage fabrics. She bought pieces of wool and cashmere blends that were produced in local textile mills over 20 years ago. Erin says, “Today, those mills no longer exist.”

Erin is as concerned with the history as with the future of the clothing and manufacturing industry in Cape Town. “Although the future cannot be predicted,” she says, “It is important for me as the designer to be influenced by the prospect of an alternative future.” To encourage the growth of the local industry, her work explores what it means to wear locally produced clothes, and what it means not to wear locally produced clothes.

Erin wants us to think about the consequences of what we buy. What does it mean if we buy from international labels? What does it mean to these women if local factories close down?

“I want consumers to think local and to shop ethically and sustainably,” says Erin.

Images: Erin Hooper and Jackie May