Everyone in the SA Fashion Week office in Rosebank is wearing black. Founder and director Lucilla Booyzen is trim, her neatly cut red hair lightly touches her shoulders. She wears a cardigan, black of course, which, she says, has been in her wardrobe for many years.

Booyzen may be one of the most knowledgeable people about fashion in SA. Her stated mission is to build the industry to the point it plays a meaningful role in the economy of the country.

She launched SA Fashion Week 21 years ago. It was the first of its kind in SA, and she gave 17 designers a platform to show their collections. Fashion until then had mostly been occasion wear or church wear, and she identified a need for a fashion week to expand repertoires, if only because there had never been a designer-led process in fashion in SA before.

Today, the two annual SA Fashion Weeks are the largest events of their kind on the continent, attracting 6,500 unique visitors each. At an October 2017 trade event, which took place over four days and ran parallel to the runway shows, 84 designers exhibited, 150 buyers attended and 139 journalists reported on the designs. Since its launch, SA Fashion Week has become a business-to-business platform that markets and promotes designers throughout Africa.

When she launched, Booyzen expected her business to grow fast, for retailers and international buyers to fall in love and to spend money on local design. She quickly realised that her role in the local industry was going to be about much more than putting on fashion shows for public relations and social events.

She would have to educate the consumers about fashion, and educate the designers about business. She would need to slow down expectations and first build the industry. “If you don’t know fashion, you can’t do it,” she says.

Luckily, says the former biology and geography teacher, “I can teach anything to anybody”, adding that she has helped make designers into household names.

Estelle Cooper, a PR professional from Johannesburg, has worked with Booyzen all her professional life. “When I think of her contribution to the SA fashion industry, there really is no one who combines all the qualities that are required to create the environment from which a local design vernacular could have developed,” Cooper says.

Apart from the two shows a year, which are primarily PR  exercises, her business involves running workshops and competitions, building business-to-business platforms and developing manufacturing skills.

“Fashion week is just one element of what I do,” Booyzen says. “Fashion needs a huge amount of attention. It needs a huge amount of energy to drive it.”

Before SA Fashion Week was founded, designer Clive Rundle had been in business for 15 years but had never shown a collection at a fashion week. He was a novice and had to learn about lights, ambiance, music … “It was a complete learning curve for me,” he says, but “Lucilla had our best interests at heart.”

Booyzen credits Annette Pringle-Kölsch, her partner in The Fashion Agent, for the commercial success of many designers. According to its latest annual report, the wholesale turnover at The Fashion Agent increased 64% between November 2016 and October 2017. The number of units sold to retailers and boutiques for this period exceeded 21,000.

Pringle-Kölsch worked for Hugo Boss as the US and  European brand manager before moving to SA. Through the agency, designers sell to retailers such as Woolworths, Zando, Superbalist and more than 80 boutiques. She not only helps with the wholesale process, but has an enormous amount of knowledge about the fashion industry. She has guided and mentored designers about manufacturing, quality and pricing.

“If designers can work with Annette, they will do well. But she’s tough,” says Booyzen. She probably has to be. The fashion business is demanding and competitive, and it does not help that SA mills and textile companies have closed down. Good and affordable fabrication is difficult and expensive to find. Imports are cheap.

“Lucilla is realistically fearless,” says Cooper. “She will make a very sober and realistic judgment of whether something can be done. And then, once it is a go, she will be fearless in making it happen. She is absolutely passionate about design and fashion, she knows exactly how the industry works internationally — what it takes to shape perceptions of credibility, who the players are, what the production values are that would be regarded as acceptable, what drives a consumer of designer fashion — and she is deeply committed to SA and the local design environment.”

Booyzen says she feels incredibly proud of what she has achieved. “We’ve built a fashion system in the country — from design to retail,” she says.

SA Fashion Week autumn/winter 2019 is at the Sandton Mall until Saturday. ’21 years of SA Fashion Week’, published by Channel F Publishing, is available at SA Fashion Week and Zeitz Mocca. 

This first appeared in Business Day. 

Images: Supplied, from top to bottom: Strangelove SS 2002/2003; Gideon SS 2002/2003; Clive Rundle SS 2011; Ryan Keys AW 2016