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April 24, 2014
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46664 shweshwe shirt. Source: 46664fashion.com

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's most influential freedom fighter, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and now fashion muse, will celebrate his 94th birthday on July 18. In his 94 years, he has accomplished more for humanity than what most of us can dream of accomplishing in our lifetimes. He became a symbol for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, raised global awareness about HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and even helped to secure the nation's bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Mandela's achievements have undoubtedly inspired millions, including Chris Vogelpoel, the menswear designer behind the Mandela-inspired fashion collection, 46664 Fashion, slated to make its international debut this summer. 

South African street style is gaining worldwide
attention. Source: guardian.co.uk.

Vogelpoel's goal was to bring South Africa's unique fashion to mainstream markets. Mission accomplished. South African fashion may have a ways to go before it becomes an industry heavyweight, but it is quickly gaining attention from the sartorial elite in Paris, London, Milan and New York. Vogelpoel's line is a true contender to turn even more heads - and his bold, bright, preppy and playful garments are a fitting representation of the themes commonly found in South Africa (think: a sophisticated Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). 

Named after Mandela's Robben Island jail number (where he was for 18 of his 27 years in prison), 46664 Fashion combines traditional South African garments, such as button-down shweshwe shirts, with a youthful edge that will have 20- and 30-somethings clamouring for the vivid pieces. 

South Africa's fashion beacon is most recognisable in Johannesburg, beckoning style masters from all over the world - namely Mercedes Benz, which also sponsors New York's fashion week. This year marked the first installment of the newly-dubbed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Johannesburg - which also happens to be the first year Mercedes-Benz signed on to sponsor Fashion Week Cape Town. In partnering with the moguls who back New York's fashion week (among others), South Africa's fashion showcase has crossed the threshold into global recognition and tenability. 

Perhaps the most captivating and endearing aspect of South African style is the fact that its roots are rich with a storied past.

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of South African style is the fact that its roots are rich with a storied past, expressed through creative individuality which calls upon a unique cultural aesthetic. Thus, the streets of Johannesburg act as its runways. South Africa's street style has garnered much attention from the fashion industry and has inspired arguably some of the most mesmerising and visually enticing photo spreads. South Africa's street style has recently been featured in publications worldwide, such as ELLE, Spin and CNN. However, street style alone does not a fashion capital make. 

Earlier this spring, Soweto, a large township on the edge of Johannesburg, got its first fashion week. Soweto's may have been small - roughly 16 designers and a three-day week - but its purpose was to showcase up-and-coming and under-the-radar designers.

The creative minds behind many of Soweto's top collections, such as the popular David Tlale and The Smarteez have put the neighbourhood on the map. However, lesser-known designers, featured in Soweto Fashion Week, conjured themes of "liberation" and "freedom," the idealism of which is evidently weaved into each and every garment - from the Mandela-inspired suits to the punchy colour blocking. For instance, 29-year-old Tebogo Lehlabi creates decorative trim for her clothes out of discarded, colourfully patterned travel bags often seen on buses around the country. Her inspiration? Africa's working class, from which she herself emerged. Her fellow designer, Collen Monnakgotla, applies opposing traits of urbanity to his vision of freedom and liberation. The menswear designer uses colour blocking and a range of styles to offer "something ghetto, something funky." 

A Shweshwe shirt available from the
46664 Fashion range.
Source: 46664fashion.com

While South African fashion is paving its own path towards worldwide recognition, the African continent as a whole has broken the barriers that otherwise might have hindered the South African pursuit of style supremacy. In the past decade or so, international fashion markets have keenly been watching the continent with hungry eyes. For instance, Dakar's tenth annual Fashion Week, which wrapped up in the middle of June, has increasing credibility in conventional fashion circles, and has become known to the world as the foremost example of Franco-African style. Even more celebrated is Arise Magazine Fashion Week, which attracted international press and buyers to its March offering in Lagos. With African-born designers Duro Olowu (now London-based) and Paris-based Xuly Bët establishing fashion houses on the world stage, we can't help but wonder if Algerian-born Yves Saint Laurent's bold patterns and his groundbreaking use of ethnically diverse models were also inspired by his motherland. 

Perhaps Helen Jennings, author of New African Fashion, sums up the grassroots movement behind African style best when she notes, "What intrigued me was learning about the development and significance behind textiles around Africa - the way that throughout the centuries cloth has acted as currency and communication and spiritual talisman as much as a method of covering one's body." 

Struggle is what has given South Africa's designers their dauntless, bold designs. Its streets and catwalks transcend utilitarian clothing norms. So, while it may be a long journey to the top of the fashion pyramid for South Africa, its designers have stimulated our senses to create an orgy of bright, brash shapes, colours and patterns. When you wear the country's designs, you wear South Africa.

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