Tuesday, July 24, 2007
BONGIWE WALAZA: AFRO-COUTURE FASHION FOR THE 21ST CENURY
Last year, Bongiwe Walaza’s dress worn by Miss South Africa contestant Catherine Reiters made it to the front page of the Sunday Times for being “too revealing”.
That Sunday, the eventual winner landed on page three, suggesting that perhaps she was not as newsworthy as the dress that caused all the trouble. That incident was merely the latest in a long line of fortunate incidents that have characterized her career in the fashion industry since the late Nineties.
Her work lies outside of trends but still influences them, to such an extent that people have continuously asked if she was part of the inaugural Stoned Cherrie team.
The fact is she wasn’t. She was just one of the pioneers of Afro chic, which has since become a staple in the industry. She spoke to Kwanele Sosibo about her late start in the industry, navigating it successfully and her future plans.
Q: So I hear you initially did not study design?
A: No, I studied for a national diploma in electrical engineering (light current) at Peninsula Tech from 1987 to 1990.
Q: How did you survive that?
A: I had to forget all about designing. My father didn’t approve of it, so I completely forgot. The only reminder was the design students I’d see [on campus]. My heart would be torn apart, in a way. I eventually worked as an engineer for seven years.
Q: How did you eventually move into designing?
A: I used to make dresses for myself and people showed interest. I used to design for colleagues and people would come to my house asking me to make them stuff so I decided to study it.
Q: You were already good at it, why study again?
A: I would buy books on designing and pattern making, you know. I could do patterns from looking at them but I was still not satisfied because I could see the difference and you could tell which one was homemade but my clients were nevertheless still impressed.
Q: So how old were you when you studied fashion?
A: This was around 1997. I was 33 years old but I never considered that. At one stage my father and I were studying at Unitra at the same time. I wasn’t the only old student and I didn’t appear my age, anyway. I was already married and my husband was doing his articles in accounting. We were basically living by the grace of God.
Q: So how did your career kick off?
A: In my first year, I won a competition that was not usually for first year students. Initially, I didn’t want to participate but the school (Natal Tech) made it compulsory for everyone.
It was also open to professionals with less than three years of experience in the industry… I won a lifetime subscription to True Love magazine and a 10-day trip to Paris, spending time with top international designers and attending a fashion fair.
In 1998, I won the Smirnoff Fashion Award and later I was a finalist at the Durban July. In 2000 I joined the Young Designers Workshop in Braamfontein.
Q: By then had you made a name for yourself?
A: In the student field, yes! I entered the M-Net-Anglo Gold Africa Designer competition and was chosen as one of those to showcase stuff in the New York Fashion Week. That’s when my name was known.
For me then, the excitement was just going to New York; I didn’t approach the whole thing as a business opportunity. I didn’t even have business cards. And when they’d ask me: “Where are your outlets?” I’d tell them I don’t have any.
Because of that exposure in New York, I was allowed to participate in Fashion Week in 2002. As someone fresh from school, you can’t showcase at Fashion Week, you’re supposed to go through the young designer’s showcase.
Later that year, I won the Turfontein Designer Cup, where I won six sewing machines. I started getting invitations overseas. The embassies would call me if they wanted something traditional and modern, which showcased the current time. 2002 was a big year. I went to Japan, Switzerland, India, Vietnam, Singapore and I also participated in the Milan Emerging Designers Fashion Week.
Q: How did the traveling enhance your work?
A: It was a mind opener, not only in influencing my design skills, but it (traveling) affected my perception and thinking.
Q: How did you get your label off the ground?
A: I’ve always operated as Bongiwe Walaza. It was only through Fashion Week and all these other events that I got known. I’ve never had a marketer. It’s really been word of mouth and dressing these characters that are known in the media and through the buyers of Edgars that attend Fashion Week and see the response.
Q: Tell us about your label at Edgars.
A: They wanted me to design casual wear for them. I had a lot of names in mind, but I chose Bozza. The BO is from Bongiwe and the ZA is from Walaza, but I just put another Z to make it look vibey.
Q: Was there a lot of pressure to produce?
A: There wasn’t a lot of pressure in the sense that we are only required to make samples and give it to them (Edgars) and they make the clothes for themselves.
There was pressure in the beginning because they didn’t know what they wanted from us we’d come with sketches then they said they wanted samples, then they didn’t want samples, it was experimentation. I think they weren’t ready for us.
Q: What’s expected of you?
A: Every two months we submit a range. So that’s six collections a year.
Q: How has that responsibility affected your business?
A: In the beginning it affected my business in a bad way. But this year I will plan more in advance. Last year, decisions were made haphazardly.
Q: How are you handling the Vlisco deal?
A: They came to me and asked me to help promote the fabric locally. They’ve got celebrities who are known as ambassadors of the brand like Graca Machel. They approached me before Fashion Week so I asked them to sponsor me with fabric for Fashion Week in return.
Q: What’s your approach to trends? How do they affect what you make?
A: There are so many designers so there’s no point in just offering people what they like or what they want. Your originality shouldn’t be affected, depending on [the strength of] your concepts. I love elegance and doing something with an Afro touch. It doesn’t have to be a fashion trend.
A fashion trend starts when a designer comes up with an idea and a celebrity wears it. Once they [celebrities] wear it, people will like it and it sets a trend. A designer that follows fashion [trends] will make that same outfit.
I focus a lot on the finish of a garment. It must be well-stitched and well-ironed, not necessarily fashionable but appealing.
Q: What are your plans for your business in 2007 and beyond?
A: It’s a process to go from being a designer to being a business person. It’s still a process for me and I’m working hard at learning. So I’ve started with accountants and I have employed designers but the core of the business still has to be me.