Disorganization Plagues Second Zimbabwe Fashion Week, but Inspires Local Youth


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HARARE, ZIMBABWE – For a Zimbabwean youth like Tatenda Shoniwa, Zimbabwe Fashion Week, ZFW, meant that he could attend a free educational workshop, explore his raw talent in fashion design and even win the opportunity to attend design school. 

Zimbabwe Fashion Week took place last week from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, under the theme “Think and Live Green.”

The two-week youth workshop that Shoniwa attended culminated in the Studio 05 Young Designers Competition. The challenge was to create biodegradable and environmentally friendly outfits, which the young designers displayed during Zimbabwe Fashion Week.

Shoniwa wowed the audience and established designers with his dress – made from a bundle of soft straw mats – prompting many to call him an artist. He won the competition, earning a three-year grant to study at Studio 05 School of Fashion in South Africa.

“I haven’t been to a design school,” Shoniwa says. “Everything I have learned so far is self-taught, so I am excited about going to Studio 05. It is thanks to ZFW and the workshop that I got this opportunity.”

After a disappointing showing last year, Zimbabwe Fashion Week 2011 drew hopeful young fashion enthusiasts and local and international designers and sponsors last week for a lively opening night. But some say a lack of organization throughout the rest of the week and exorbitant costs to participate and attend kept the event from reaching its full potential. Still, they say the event was an improvement from its inaugural year in 2010, and they hope it will continue to develop in future years.

After the Government of National Unity formed in early 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy grew 5.7 percent in less than a year, reversing a decade of decline, according to KM Financial Solutions, a financial services company. The improvement in Zimbabwe’s economy saw a surge in retail and fashion, as the commodities of fuel and food became more affordable and accessible. This in turn led to the first Zimbabwe Fashion Week in 2010.

But the first Zimbabwe Fashion Week disappointed many, as few people turned up. Those involved cited a breakdown in communication, a lack of organization and budgetary constraints.

Model and fashion designer Priscilla Chigariro, the founder of Zimbabwe Fashion Week, drew much of the criticism. Her staff accused her of weak leadership, and local media gathered reports of disgruntled designers, models, buyers and sponsors.

Chigariro promised an improvement for this year’s event.

“The one thing I will do next time is to make sure that I have a good team in place well in advance,” Chigariro said last year to local media. “I have learned my lesson.”

On opening night this year, Chigariro was optimistic.

“Last year was emotional trauma,” Chigariro says. “I think this year is going to be much better. I have more sponsors, and it’s been better organized.”

The second Zimbabwe Fashion Week certainly looked more promising. Chigariro recruited a hardworking team and a multitude of sponsors and partners that promoted the event in the media, ranging from local partners, such as The Zimbo Jam – an arts and entertainment magazine – to international organizations, including Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute and British Council. International designers, including Christine Wolf of Germany, Nadège Cezette of France and Jose Rui Lopes of Angola, also chose to participate this year.

“Some of the designers I have seen here in Zimbabwe are very talented,” Wolf says. “It is great that this event can showcase their work.”

Wolf and Cezette also served as mentors to youth like Shoniwa during the educational workshop.

Still, many noted that last week’s events were disorganized and often chaotic. On opening night, mayhem erupted as last-minute construction on the stage occurred just 30 minutes before the show. Makeup artists arrived late, and members of the press scrambled around the models to get their press cards from the Zimbabwe Fashion Week organizers.

Wolf sat in a corner looking stressed by all the chaos.

“All fashion shows are stressful,” she says. “Maybe it is because I am German. It is just I was very distraught to find there were no rails to hang my clothes on when I arrived. I was told the rails were on their way. They haven’t arrived yet, but luckily a shop owner from the mall has kindly lent me one of hers.”

In the meantime, bottles of bubbly kept the audience occupied, courtesy of sponsor J.C. Le Roux, a South African wine cellar. Few audience members seemed to mind that two hours had passed since the show was set to start.

When the announcement finally came for people to take their seats, there were close to 200 people in the audience, including the mayor of Harare city, Muchadeyi Masunda, businessmen and other dignitaries. With some of the most influential people in Harare in attendance, Zimbabwe Fashion Week 2011 was off to a better start than last year’s discombobulated event.

“Of course there are more people,” says Ronald Tisauke, owner of En Vogue Model Agency in Zimbabwe. “No one showed up last year. This year, it is going to be a success. More people, more sponsors, better organization.”

Zimbabwean designer Terence Chipembere agrees.

“Yes,” he says. “There is just more of everything. It is fabulous.”

The first night certainly promised “more of everything.” Apart from the hiccups before the show, the strong presence of sponsors and support seemed to indicate that Zimbabwe Fashion Week this year would be a success. 

But the following day, the first show in the afternoon started late again, as did every other show during the week. Audience members, designers and judges grew restless as the delays persisted.

“There have been no explanations and no apologies,” says Bev Matherson, a casting agent and one of the judges for the Studio 05 Young Designers Competition. “I am here with the CEO of Cape Town Fashion Council. He is a VIP, and you would think the organizers would at least explain to him what is causing the delay.”

The chief executive officer, Bryan Ramkilawan, did not comment on the late starts or lack of communication, but he did say Harare needs a fashion council for better organization.

“There is a need for a design and fashion body to oversee the intervention,” he says. “Just like how you have a London Fashion Council and a Cape Town Fashion Council, you need a Harare Fashion Council, with a go-to person that will oversee the events, coordinate everyone and control the dispersion of funds.”

Despite a large audience on opening night, the majority of the daytime shows during the rest of the week garnered just 20 people in the audience. Some say this is because admission was expensive, with tickets ranging between $15 USD and $25 USD per show. The gross national income in Zimbabwe is just $500 USD per year.

Ramkilawan says that fashion weeks held in other countries, like Ghana and South Africa, usually don’t have cover charges. He says that the sponsors cover the costs, and fashion councils are in charge of allocating the funds generated.

One designer, who declined to be named, says the event seems more like a way for Chigariro to make money than to enhance the fashion industry here.

“I wanted to showcase my range, but I am so glad I didn’t,” the designer says. “Priscilla Chigariro charged each of the Zimbabwean designers $300 [USD] to showcase their pieces. Ten designers this week – you do the maths. Plus, she had sponsors covering costs.”

The designer says colleagues lost out.

“I feel sorry for the designers,” the designer says. “It’s hard to make an income as it is. Imagine how they must have felt when only a handful of people showed up.”

Chigariro dismissed the designer’s claims.

“This year is better than last year’s,” Chigariro says. “There is a lot that goes into organizing an event like this. It is not easy, and it costs money.”

Although the evening events drew larger audiences, some designers who chose not to participate say it didn’t seem enough to justify the expensive fee to feature their work. Designers and other attendees say that retail buyers also didn’t return for Zimbabwe Fashion Week 2011, perhaps because of the poor results from the previous year.

One teen fashion enthusiast and blogger, Melissa, 14, who declined to give her last name, says she was disappointed.

“It is all in the name,” she says. “When I heard the name Zimbabwe Fashion Week, I thought it would be like London Fashion Week. There have been other fashion shows this year, but I assumed that those were small and centered on one or two designers. Whereas with this, I was expecting something big.”

Still, many say that the event was a vast improvement from last year’s disappointment.

“This is so much better than last year,” says a woman who calls herself ZimFashionista and has a blog by the same name. “Obviously it’s not yet on an international level, but it is an improvement. This venue, Joina city shopping mall, was a good choice, too. At least the opening and closing nights were filled to capacity. It is getting there.”

Advocates say this Zimbabwe Fashion Week showcased much of the talent in the Zimbabwean fashion industry. From established designers – such as Chipembere and Joyce Chimanye, who has dressed Nelson Mandela in the past – to new talent – such as Colin Ratisai, Caileigh Povall and Bisma Ahmed – there is a glimmer of a fashion renaissance on the horizon.

“There is lots of potential,” Ramkilawan says. “I have seen some real talent here.”

He offers advice to designers to improve their work.

“There needs to be a wider selection of fabric available, though, and the designers could do with assistance with trend research,” he says.

He also says that there’s not a large demand for traditional clothing, as fashion has become more global.

“If designers are looking for a big audience, I would advise them to not look for identity,” he says. “Fashion is a global environment after all.”

Attendees say they hope the event continues to improve each year, especially when it comes to organization, so that Zimbabwe’s world of fashion can see the revival it deserves.