Imprint ZA’s 100% South African cotton dress was a showstopper at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards. The attention-grabbing dress was largely inspired by an Imprint ZA African bridal gown that was nominated as the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019. Its silhouette resembles that of Victorian-inspired African dresses worn by Namibian Herero women. When model Julia Ntkiese arrived at the awards event, she captured everyone’s attention. As planned.

In August, designer Mzukise Mbane of Imprint ZA met with textile designer Lesego Maloka of Pone Creatives textile design. They agreed on using a 100% cotton fabric, made from locally spun yarn containing South African cotton fibre. Cotton SA, in its drive to create awareness of the attributes of cotton as a preferred raw fibre among local designers, supported this initiative and sponsored the dress. The fabric, designed by Maloka, was used by Mbane to create awareness about the South African cotton industry.

Maloka called her textile design used for the dress “makala“, which means charcoal in Sitsonga. She said: “This design developed from an inspiration drawn from my childhood experience of seeing women from the Tsonga tribe, selling street-roasted peanuts”. Drawing and translating the shapes resulted in a peanut shape. “I wanted to celebrate and embrace the women for their devotion to the daily task of making fires and roasting peanuts in the big pans,” she said.

Using cotton as the fibre gave Mbane and Maloka an opportunity to explore and be part of sustainable change within our country. “Being able to source a yarn grown and spun in South Africa gave us an opportunity to experiment with the possibilities of using local yarn. It allowed us the convenience of finding the best look and feel without waiting, and having to work with whatever is available,” said Maloka. The textile was woven at Svenmill in Cape Town.

We import too much and we produce too little

The event was the initiative of Twyg, a non-profit company (NPC) working to inspire a shift towards a sustainable lifestyle among consumers. The organisation’s main focus is fashion, and the local clothing and textile industry. This industry has been decimated by cheap imports and more than 100 000 people have lost their jobs since 2000. Earlier this year, Western Cape MEC for Economic Opportunities, Beverley Schäfer said: “We import too much and we produce too little. As a country, our imports of clothing, textiles and leather goods have rocketed from just over R5 billion in 2000 to almost R60 billion now.”

There is little doubt that designers want to buy local fabrics to support the local industry. Not only is there an emotional response to support the local industry, there is also real interest to follow sustainable and ethical fashion practices. During this year’s September fashion week season, the dominating trend on the international runways was “sustainability”. This trend manifested itself in different ways. One brand showed its looks on a tree-lined runway, others committed to becoming carbon-neutral, some showed recycled or upcycled collections, all of them were keen on telling a “green story” to promote sustainability. At the African Fashion International (AFI) fashion week in Johannesburg, Laurence Airline drew attention to environmental issues, with a collection called “We are all children of earth”. The other South African fashion week, SA Fashion Week has committed to promoting “eco-friendly” fashion and it made sustainability practices the criteria for its New Talent competition.

So what does this mean for South African designers? Buying local gives designers more control over their supply chain. They would understand the origin of the cloth they use. Most of the designers with whom I engage, employ between one and five skilled employees. Many make a living creating garments with cheap imported fabrics. The results of a designer survey conducted by Twyg earlier this year indicated that access to affordable, local and sustainable fabrics was the biggest barrier to creating sustainable collections.

While the South African cotton industry has grown by 800% since 2013, for young designers it is still not easy. Designer and owner of Artclub and Friends, Robyn Keyser said:“We all want to promote the concept of sustainability, but we can’t afford to buy local and/or sustainable fabrics produced under sustainable conditions.” Mbane would like to work more with cotton, but says the cost makes it too difficult.

Back to the Cotton SA dress. For too long, fashion has featured in headline stories for bad labour practices, conspicuous consumption, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. Now, fashion is realising its potential for creating positive stories about saving the planet and economic development. The capacity that fashion has for powerful storytelling and for setting cultural agendas is its real beauty. With commitment and follow-through, good things will come of the sustainable trend. Not only can sustainable design practices and better manufacturing of clothes and textiles reduce the industry’s negative impact on the planet and create jobs, it can inspire other industries to do the same.

Fashion can influence the way we consume, encourage local manufacturing, and influence the way we live, positively. We hope that this dress will inspire value addition to the cotton industry pipeline by increasing local demand of locally produced cotton textiles, which will make it more affordable and available to designers.

  • Images: Fiona McPherson and Twyg (Bottom image: Tanya Aucamp (Cotton SA), Lesego Maloka (Pone Creatives), Julia Ntkiese (model), Mzukise Mbane (Imprint ZA), Jackie May (Twyg) and Brent Greenblatt (Svenmill)