SAFW ushers in the green catwalk 

South African Fashion Week highlighted the beauty of South African designs while placing a strong focus on making the fashion industry sustainable.  

It was lights, camera, and action for models and designers this past weekend at the annual Spring/Summer 2024 South African Fashion Week (SAFW) at Mall of Africa. The event was overflowing with guests ready to celebrate the country’s current fashion landscape.  

The three-day event from 18 to 20 April was a celebration of South African stories through new designs and offered the runway to many fledgling designers from across the country. The star-studded event did this by focusing on sustainable fashion.  

The idea of ‘green fashion’ has become a hot-button issue; and SAFW has committed to a clean fashion ethos since 2019, in a bid to create a non-toxic fashion industry. Many of the designers who presented their collections over the weekend emphasised the importance of sustainability in their designs and brands. 

The opening night presented the Mr Price New Talent Search, which showcased collections by new and upcoming designers, challenging them to produce their garments sustainably. Jessica-Ann Shepherd, the creator of ‘Oddity’ was this year’s winner, with her collection of vibrant, utility-inspired clothing.  

Shepherd mentioned in her pre-show introduction that “responsible fashion is important because it is a solution to the industry’s environmental and social issues. We incorporate responsible fashion by upcycling, slow design, and reusing waste.” 

Vanya Mangaliso, designer and creator of ‘Sun Goddess’ — a luxury heritage brand from Johannesburg told Wits Vuvuzela about their strategy to ensure a greener footprint. “Once we have cut the clothes, there [are] a lot of cuts of fabric that fill up landfills, which is wrong. We take those clothes and cut byproducts, like pillows and quilting to make sure every piece of fabric is used,” says Mangaliso.  

This is a view shared by many of the featured designers in ensuring their work is green, and not adding to the growing environmental issues worldwide. 

The final day featured a collection by Mpumelelo Dhlamini from ‘Ezokhetho, a fashion brand with a focus on African women and their stories. Dhlamini explained that green fashion is unique to each designer. “For us it is finding ways of using leftover fabric because we are a print-heavy brand, so we always have prints that we can reuse and reintroduce,” explains Dhlamini. 

Dhlamini stated that Ezokhetho’s print-heavy style helps to tell their stories, and this season’s collection titled, Umthwalo meaning ‘carry me’ looks at the relationship between an adult and their parents. “It’s basically tapping into your inner child as an adult.” This collection featured bright, and vibrant prints to highlight the depths of that narrative. 

Much like Ezokhetho’s collection, the diverse designs featured throughout the weekend told different stories, many of which were inspired by South Africa and the designer’s experiences. 

Leon von Solms, a designer from Cape Town says his collection was inspired by flowers to express the world’s need for positivity. “My inspiration is flowers…I specifically painted local flowers, because I just feel we need flowers; we need love and happiness.”  

This eccentric 1970s themed collection made use of metallics and bright colours, and hand painted flora to put forward a message of “happiness and peace.” Von Solms’ collection also featured accessories his colleague created from recycled materials to match each of the flowers painted on the dresses.  

The event was a lively showcase with beautiful prints, colours and silhouettes that highlighted the intricacies of local design. South African Fashion Week will return in October 2024 for the Autumn/ Winter collections.  

PROFILE: Out with the new, in with the old 

This thrift maven is not only drastically growing her own local, inclusive, sustainable business, but she also empowers others to do the same. 

Wits graduate Gabrielle Onay has redefined much of the second-hand scene in Johannesburg through their thrift store “Crybaby Thrift”  and popular sustainable flea market “Picnic and Thrift”. 

Born in 1999 in Johannesburg, Onay describes herself as a “seichel” – a Yiddish term which is associated with someone who uses ingenuity, creativity, subtlety and nuance in their work and life. 

Sustainable businesswoman Gabrielle Onay posing in her office in front of many of the things she is proud of, one being her BA degree from Wits. Photo: Seth Thorne

While doing her undergraduate BA degree in sociology and Portuguese – she would later achieve an honours in sociology – Onay wanted to find a way to make money as a university student to not only feed her cigarette addiction but to pay for fees.  

With a lifelong interest in fashion, “thrifting” (the reselling of second-hand items) and passion for sustainability, culminated in her online business. Onay hates everything about fast fashion due to its harmful effects on both labour and the environment. “[Big companies] have proven themselves as bad for this earth,” she said.  

In 2018, she began marketing her second-hand clothing on Instagram using the name “Crybaby Thrift,” which gained a substantial following and quickly expanded into selling merchandise made with upcycled clothes. In the process of upcycling, Onay uses businesses run by other Wits students to print and embryoid designs.  

In an interview with Wits Vuvuzela, Onay said that she believes that a new future of exchange is dawning – with thrift being its new currency. “Sustainability is our generation’s way forward,” said Onay.  

In 2019 Onay, alongside sustainable gift shop owner and close friend Ruby Prager created a market, Picnic and Thrift,  comprised of young business owners from the university community. Onay described them as “the thrifters of Wits”.  

Underestimating their pull, Onay and Prager needed to find a bigger space after attracting several hundred visitors to their own backyard in Houghton. The monthly market attracts around 2 000 visitors, with around 40 thrift and sustainable product stalls. 

The market also prides itself on being a “queer-friendly space” – one which allows members and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community to not only grow and support their businesses but allow for free, unfiltered self-expression for attendees. Truthfully so, the event has become very much synonymous with the Johannesburg queer scene. 

Rewoven, a company that sells materials and products made from textile waste, came across Onay’s work, and wrote the following: 

“Crybaby Thrift sits in the heart of queer eccentric culture – it is a curated and unique brand that is centred around sustainability, high fashion, and ethical consumption and development. Crybaby Thrift is also a community and small business development hub.

Onay describes this as intentional to change a narrative around the Joburg queer community as “not just being associated with hard nightlife.” She describes the space as “lovely, gentle and welcoming.” 

Prager described their pure happiness at witnessing Onay’s business and personal growth. “Watching Gabi [alongside other student businesses] grow in the space that they have, has been incredible. I cannot wait to see what they do next. I cannot wait to see what we do next.” 

As much as Onay has achieved in this sustainable business adventure, she says that she is just getting started. So, watch out fashion industry – Gabrielle is coming for you one pre-loved item at a time.  

FEATURED: Thrifter and businesswoman Gabrielle Onay sorting through her upcycled Crybaby Thrift clothing products. Photo: Seth Thorne