What is avant-garde and how does it fit into South African contemporary fashion design? In order for one to determine if you are for or against avant-garde, and specifically in relations to South African avant-garde, one must first define avant-garde and explore the origin and history of the movement.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Art, avant-garde is defined as ”a term originally used to describe the foremost part of an army advancing into battle (also called vanguard) and now applied to a group, particularly of artist, that considers itself innovative and ahead of the majority” (Chilvers, 2004:42). Avant-garde therefore refers to designs that are new, innovative and cutting edge.
South African avant-garde is presently a very small part of the local fashion industry, but it is a developing fashion trend with great potential. South African avant-garde designers are constantly pushing the envelope in order to stretch the minds of the consumers and other designers. This carries great potential for the South African fashion industry as well as the economy, for if the designers succeed to be truly avant-garde, it is bound to have a positive outcome. I am therefore arguing for the existence and development of South African avant-garde and will be discussing Suzaan Heyns’ 2011 autumn/winter range, die vorm, Stiaan Louw’s 2011 autumn/winter range, Black Coffee’s 2013 winter range, WREATHE, Laduma Ngxokolo’ 2012 autumn/winter range, MaXhosa, as well as Thabo Makheta’s 2012 range, Kabo ea Bohali.
Avant-garde first made its appearance in art during die late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. A small group of artist decided to break away from the rules that bound artist into creating only an established style of art. They actively attacked the institution of art in order to separate and detach themselves from it, but also to reincorporate themselves and their art into life (Bϋrger, 1984: xxxvi). The first avant-garde art appeared is the Italian Futurism, French Cubism and German Expressionism movements. These movements were so different due to their fundamentally new aspirations and origins in relation between the artist and the world as well as the subject and the object. Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism followed soon after, continuing in these aspirations (Szabolcsi, 1971: 53).
During the late twentieth century, the fashion century came to an end and postfashion came into being. This new fashion movement is expressed in the reversal of the relationship between the fashion designer and follower. Since the 1970’s, fashion is no longer initiated by the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie and then shifted down to the general public, but now introduced by the general public’s street style where after it moves into the salons of haute couture where it is adapted and mimicked (Vinken, 2005: 63).
In the 1980’s, fashion designers started implementing the use of non-fashionable elements to create the avant-garde fashion beyond fashion. Western Paris-based fashion designs and ideas were shattered and the idea of dressing oneself as a ‘man’, ‘woman’ or ‘lady’ became an out of date concept. The avant-garde fashion trend aimed to expose the old function of clothes that classified people into groups of age, gender and status (Gegzy, 2012:103). Furthermore, avant-garde designers aimed to shock the public and not to create beautiful and luxurious clothing (Vinken, 2005: 64).
Today, contemporary civilization is so desensitized to norms and values that designers struggle to succeed in using the shock treatment as a way to draw attention to their work. It is also very difficult for designers to create totally new designs, for almost everything has been done before. Due to this, as a designer, avant-garde is such a difficult movement to be apart of. South African designers therefore also tend not to be a part of the avant-garde movement, but to follow the European trends and use it as part of their design inspiration.
A few South African designers has accepted the challenge of designing avant-garde garments, but are they really a match for the famous and established avant-garde designers or are they simply following in the footsteps of other avant-garde designers? In case study 1, Suzaan Heyns’ 2011 autumn/ winter range is depicted. This range’s name is “die vorm”, because she drew her inspiration from the anatomy of the human body (Heyns, 2011). When one looks at the images, one can see that in some instances, continues lines are used to depict the flow and natural rhythm of the human body. Her aim was to reveal the inside of the body on the exterior of a garment, thus creating an exoskeleton (Heyns, 2011).
This is evident in every design due to the different techniques that she implemented. In this collection one can also see that the muscular and skeletal systems are taken and distorted and warped to create remarkable designs. The fractural shapes in the garments, also contributes to an anatomical silhouette. Suzaan describes her collection and says “it is about inner symbolism, looking at our inner physiology and taking it outside which in turn represents the unveiling of our hidden psyche” (Heyns, 2011).
Suzaan Heyns is one of South Africa’s leading avant-garde fashion designers, but does her designs live up to the standards and definition of true avant-garde design? Although her range has a very interesting concept, and forms such an excelent collection, it is not truly avant-garde, for it has been done before. In 2010, Gucci had a range inspired by x-rays and the same year Jean Paul Gaultier launched his creation as part of the fall collection, inspired by exploring the concept of wearing innerwear as outerwear (Joanna, 2010). This proves that although her designs might have been classified as avant-garde, it is not truly innovative. She did thus also not set a trend, but followed the trendsetters.
In case study 2, one can see Stiaan Louws’s 2011 autumn/winter collection. In this collection, he uses different layers of fabric to represent an exploration of self-expression in the context of social, sexual and traditional cultures. At the same time it also comments on our perception of an African aesthetic (Mhlanga, 2011). Stiaan was inspired by the way that different cultures wrapped their cloths, especially the Masai and Indian cultures as well as the ancient Greeks (Muhlenberg: 2011). He also explored with African aesthetics in his collection, which can be seen in the beaded neckpieces. His collaboration of different cultures’ way of wrapping their clothing, led to a balance of colonial and nomadic styles.
In this collection, a diverse range of high-waisted peg-leg trousers can be seen along with harem pants and pleated shoulder shawls. Loose fabrics are also used to create these different kinds of wraps and loose silhouettes. The warm and earthy colours, such as mud-grey, brown, blue, red and burnt orange, also refer back to African aesthetics. These colours bring the collection and theme to life. Colourful belts that are wrapped and folded over loose vests as well as over-sized neck pieces are also some of the accessories and styling that contributes to the feel of the overall range (Muhlenberg, 2011).
Stiaan Louw is viewed as one of South Africa’s up and coming avant-garde designers, but these designs can not be classified as truly avant-garde. The use of fabrics, such as t-shirt fabric, and the combination of clothing items might be a new addition to traditional culture’s wrapping cloths or way of styling, but that does not make it avant-garde. As soon as a designer uses another culture’s clothing as inspiration, the end product is likely not to be avant-garde, for it has mostly been done before.
The third case study is Black Coffee’s 2013 winter range, WREATHE. This range entwines together contemporary engineering and fabrics with classic and feminine silhouettes. The textures that is clearly visible and one of the key elements of this collection, is created by braiding industrial felt and the layering of mesh panels. In this collection, Black Coffee experimented
with the sculptural process of carving, where the shape is exposed within and not constructed by the foundational material (Black Coffee, 2012). This also served as their inspiration for the range. With this collection, Black Coffee hoped to create a ‘collection that captivates by precision and seduces through romantic imagination’ (Black Coffee, 2012). This collection uses a very soft and feminine colour palette in order to convey the romantic feel and to highlight the classic silhouettes. It also uses the classic clothing elements such as high-waisted pants, coats and dresses but change them in such a way that they appear as innovative garments.
In 2009, Givenchy launched a spring range with a dress that appears to be very similar to some of Black Coffee’s 2013 winter designs (Style, 2012). Although that is the case, Black Coffee can still be viewed as an avant-garde designer, for it creates truly innovative designs that are beautiful and functional at the same time.
In case study 4, Laduma Ngxokolo’s 2012 autumn/winter range, MaXhosa, are depicted. His inspiration for the designs is traditional Xhosa beadwork, craft, symbolism and colours. He uses these in knitwear made of mohair and merino wool in order for amakrwalas, Xhosa initiates, to wear it after they have gone through the initiation process (Ngxokolo, 2012). This knitwear depicts his cultural aesthetics and is very practical at the same time. Al of his designs is contemporary and yet culturally applicable and brings the Xhosa aesthetics to any outfit (Design Indaba, 2013).
One can clearly see the use of the Xhosa patterns and the beadwork inspiration in the jersey designs. They are also colourful, true to the Xhosa traditional colours. Furthermore, Laduma has succeeded in creating garments that is formal enough for the amakrwalas to wear, for they traditionally have to wear formal clothing for up to six months after the initiation process, to symbolize their newly found manhood (Ngxokolo, 2012).
This jersey-knitwear does not seem to be avant-garde design, but no knitwear has been made using Xhosa patterns and beadwork as inspiration before. If one looks at the definition of avant-garde, stating that a design should be
innovative to be classified as avant-garde design, then Laduma’s MaXhosa range can be classified as avant-garde design.
Case study 5 depicts Thabo Makhetha’s 2012 range, Kabo ea Bohali, meaning blanket of the prestige (Design Indaba, 2013). Thabo uses Basotho blankets to create stunning coats and handbags. The handbags are made out of the blanket scraps, in order to eliminate as much waste as possible. By up-cycling the blankets, Thabo is also contributing to a “greener” society (Makhetha, 2013). Traditional Sotho patterns can be seen in the coats, as they are traditionally on Basotho blankets.
These blanket coats can certainly be classified as avant-garde, for it is cutting edge, and has not been done before. There is currently a blanket trend amongst males, but none that include fashioning clothing out of blankets. The trend merely includes males draping blankets with fashionable patterns around their neck and shoulders, almost like an over-sized scarf (Bougaardt, 2013).
Contemporary South African fashion does not really include avant-garde fashion designs. Most trends are simply copied from European fashion trends, for we are a season behind. Therefore South Africa has a very small, yet developing avant-garde fashion movement seen in the designs of fashion designers such as Suzaan Heyns, Stiaan Louw, Black Coffee, Laduma Ngxokolo and Thabo Makhetha. These designers’ works would most likely not be classified as avant-garde by famous European designers, but from a South African point of view, they would qualify.
Just like the small group of artists that broke away from the bounding rules of previous established art styles, our small South African group of designers is attempting avant-garde design. They may not be the leaders of the pack, but they are certainly contending and attacking the system of following European trends. Although I have now seen that South African avant-garde is really limited and almost none existing, I am still arguing for the development of South African fashion design. I believe that the success of being truly avant-garde will lead to exposure and publicity for
the country, which in turn will lead to a positive economic outcome.
List of Illustrations
Case Study 1: Suzaan Heyns
Die Vorm, Autumn/Winter 2011.
Johannesburg Fashion Week 2011
Image from: Heyns, S. 2011. Autumn Winter 2011 Die Vorm. Suzaan Heyns. [Online]. Available: http://www.suzaanheyns.com/die-vorm.html#prettyPhoto[gallery2]/0/. [27 February 2013]. Case Study 2: Stiaan Louw
Untitled, Autumn/ Winter 2011.
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Image from: African Fashion International 2011. 2011 Joburg Fashion Week: Stiaan Louw. African Fashion International. [Online]. Available: http://afi.sdr.co.za/index.php?album=1101JFW%2F33STI. [27 February 2013].
Case Study 3: Black Coffee
Jacques van der Watt,
WREATHE, Winter 2013
SA Fashion Week, 2012
Image from: Black Coffee, 2012. Black Coffee. Black Coffee. [Online]. Available: http://www.blackcoffee.co.za/collections/wreathe-winter-2013/. [27 February 2013].
Case Study 4: Laduma Ngxokolo
Merino and Mohair wool.
Design Indaba Expo 2013.
Image From: Ngxokolo, L. 2012 Autumn/Winter – Men’s Collection. African Knitwear. [Online]. Available: http://www.africanknitwear.com/collections.aspx. [3 March 2013] Case Study 5: Thabo Makhetha
Kabo ea Bohali, 2012.
Design Indaba Expo 2013.
Image From: Thabo Makhetha 2012. Gallery- a closer look at the designer’s collections. Thabo Makhetha. [Online]. http://www.thabomakhethadesigns.co.za/album.php?aid=6. [27 February 2013]. List of references:
Bougaardt, K. 2013. Men’s Fashion Trends: Blanket Fashion. Plascon Trends. [Online]. Available: http://plascontrends.co.za/mens-fashion-trends-blanket-fashion/ . [3 March 2013].
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