It has been 21 years since Lucilla Booyzen returned from her adventures abroad as a model and show producer and took to the runway with the launch of South African Fashion Week (SAFW).
Since then, Booyzen has become a landmark figure in the local industry, garnering a reputation for having somewhat of a midas touch when it comes to the business of fashion.
In celebration of her contribution to the industry, the Fashion Handbook caught up with Booyzen and some of the country’s leading designers, to reminisce on years past and reflect on years ahead.
Anyone who has attended the prominent SAFW event will have seen a signature auburn bob wading among the industry’s rising talent and fashion community. Her name has now become synonymous with South African fashion, shrewdly spearheading its growth through a system that includes a highly-attended fashion week showcase, a retail trade event, e-commerce, and designer pop-up stores; making SAFW the only business-to-business marketing platform for designers.
When Lucilla Booyzen began her entrée into fashion, during a time when having a fashion industry was understandably not a priority in the newly democratic country, “Most designers in South Africa were making garments for occasions. Bespoke pieces that clients wore to weddings, cocktail functions, parties and other functions,” says Booyzen. Since then, the country’s fashion industry boasts a diverse and thriving community that includes designers who have established careers, a transformation that has been driven, in no small measure, by Lucilla.
“You have to know the business of fashion to do the business of fashion,” says Booyzen, who has steadfastly applied a business lens into every aspect of SAFW. The platform’s subsidiaries underline Booyzen’s desire to make SAFW less of an ostentatious social affair and more of an industry centre-point, eschewing fleeting status for sustained longevity.
Renowned designer, Gert-Johan Coetzee says, “South African Fashion Week has a sole purpose, and that is to uplift the fashion industry by making the public, media and buyers aware of the designers and the great talent that we have in our country. The main purpose is to teach the business of fashion. Fashion is not all about catwalks and glamour; when the lights go off after a show, the real works starts!”
“You have to know the business of fashion to do the business of fashion.”
When she’s not plotting her next business move, Booyzen spends her time nurturing the next generation of designers, a passion she’s harnessed since her days as a high-education teacher, “I used to teach the chairs in my parents lounge, on the farm, and I am still teaching and learning,” she says.
In addition to four annual designer competitions, SAFW runs the 12 Steps to Retail programme that takes designers through the full business cycle of running a successful brand. Despite having had no formal training in fashion, Booyzen is a stickler for self-development, an avidity she’s conveyed to her SAFW team and apprentice designers. “There can be no real growth without education and if there are no fashion schools in a country, the fashion [industry] will not develop to its full potential. There also needs to be a fashion system in place for fashion to develop like it has in Europe, America, Australia and the East.”
Booyzen has no qualms about comparing South African fashion to that of its international peers, having spent time abroad learning from the best in the industry, “I went on an information gathering trip in Europe visiting the London, Paris, Milan and German Fashion Weeks, and I realized then that we will not have a creative fashion industry if we do not create a marketing platform where the designers can show their collections to the buyers, media, and their clients. This motivated me to start the SAFW in 1997.”
“Her commitment to the platform, as well as her consistency and passion to creating a platform where South African designers have been able to showcase for 21 years, has created a space for international recognition and allowed for South African designers to be taken seriously. To reach this level of recognition can only be done by being as passionate and consistent as Lucilla,” says Clive Rundle, with whom Lucilla had the honour of visiting Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange.
“I live fashion, it permeates my life, it is part of who I am.”
However, the business of fashion does not come without its challenges. “I do an enormous amount of research and I live fashion, it permeates my life, it is part of who I am. So, I have developed a strong sense of what needs to happen in the industry. The frustrating part is that the people that should be realizing the power of fashion, the people that can make a real difference when it comes to financial support for the designers, have no understanding of this.”
Nonetheless, the founder has witnessed the rise and fall of similar fashion platforms and retail brands, attributing her unyielding survival to realizing “the importance of turning talent into money.” Through successful partnerships with retail behemoths like Edgars and Woolworths, and developing strong relationships with buyers across the country, SAFW has helped place local brands in over 240 .
“Booyzen has a sense of discernment within her and she is able to spot talent. I am always fond of her that she is able to do that each season,” says Hangwani Nengovhela, the designer behind Rubicon Clothing. “Rubicon has grown in leaps and bounds since using the SAFW platform. We have come to assert ourselves in the business of fashion through the market access that SAFW offers.”
“By starting SAFW, Booyzen created a credible platform for establishing and esteeming South Africans as designers in their own right. I really value how Booyzen has facilitated and encouraged us to view ourselves as having potential to grow as businesses,” says Amanda Laird Cherry, whose eponymous brand is a patron of the SAFW runway.
It’s been an eventful journey for Booyzen, who counts the growth and success of many local designers as one of many highlights of her career. “I see it as a huge privilege to have the opportunity to live my life through the South African Fashion Week. To be able to identify talent, mentor and guide it, support and market it. I connect with an incredible amount of amazing people on all levels.”
Though the country continues to face an uncertain future, Booyzen remains undaunted by the challenges many fashion businesses face, as she continues to plough her energy and effort into growing South African fashion.
As she prepares for yet another successful Fashion Week, reaching a major milestone of 21 years of SAFW, Booyzen will continue on her mission to see, “more designers’ stores, and more boutiques and department stores carrying [local] designers…and developing their reputation not only in South Africa but globally.”
Until then, Booyzen will be keeping a watchful eye on her next creative endeavour, building on SAFW’s legacy as the foundation of a flourishing fashion design industry.