Zimbabwe's biggest festival, the Harare International Festival of the Arts, is now just days away. HIFA always serves up one of the country's best annual fashion moments as the region's artsy types descend on the capital for a week of expression. At last year's HIFA and in December 2012, we organised a summer garden party in Harare bringing together some of Zimbabwe's best emerging designers and creatives to celebrate the value of supporting local talent. Harare's fashion industry has become dominated by cheap Chinese imports that have flooded the market and a few South African stores that feel like the lonely forgotten cousins of their better versions in Joburg or Cape Town. Zimbabwe's middle class tend to wait for trips to South Africa, London or increasingly Dubai to shop, and flying out with them go their US dollars. During our Harare adventures, we met some amazing designers that are changing the face of Zimbabwe's fashion industry that we think are worth keeping those dollars local for.
Tanya Mushayi, the 25 year old surface and fashion designer behind popular Zimbabwean brand Tanya Nefertari, is one of them. A favourite of the local creative cool kids such as rapper Tehn Diamond, the label earned Tanya a spot on the Diesel Studio Africa campaign as one of Africa's young creatives to watch.
She's one of the few local designers who have managed to turn her talent into a full time gig- mostly thanks to social media. We had a quick chat with her to find out how she's turning selling $20 dresses into an international brand, plus what Zimbabwe's fashion industry really looks like on the inside...
On Twitter Fame
Owning a storefront or covering even basic overheads in Harare is expensive, but who needs a bricks and mortar when you can have an Instagram account for free? A quick look at Tanya's Twitter and Instagram accounts show numerous comments from people asking how they can order the clothes she's wearing. Customers are able to interact with her directly through social media, make an order and swing by to pick it up on the way back from work- shopping just couldn't get any easier.
It was also through Facebook that she got her first stockist after the owner of Harare's Dress Code Boutique noticed her Facebook page and recently contacted her to collaborate on her latest two season mini collection.
"I owe a lot to social media. It isn't easy though, it's a lot of time, work, brainstorming and data!"
The real power of social media is it's global reach which is how her Zimbabwean fans across the world stay in touch. "My label is worn in Australia, America, the UK & South Africa to name a few and that's from customers who have seen my images on social media. They have family here who pay and collect on their behalf to take with them when they visit them", she told us.
On Keeping It Local
You can tell that as a surface designer student, print was her first love. Her collections are an impressive mix of traditional prints and modern aesthetics that are perfect for a younger generation that like us want to express references to their heritage through style, but in a forward thinking way.
"My latest collection is made up of Malawi Java for the summer pieces, and for winter it's a mix of java and woven houndstooth fabric which I designed specifically for the professional working woman. My last collection, The Diamond collection was comprised of Zimbabwean made fabrics from the now closed David Whitehead. It was a mix of Ndebele tribe print and diamonds. My inspiration was the Kanye West & Shirley Bassey song Diamonds Are Forever and I was envisioning Rihanna or Solange wearing those pieces. A girl can dream right? When I designed The Clash collection my main thought was if the (1920 -1930) Art Deco Movement artists were still alive today what would they wear? It was very retro inspired, lots of open back bustier crop tops, high waisted trousers, stiffened dresses & geometric prints and capes."
"I'd love to create my own textiles for my collections because I think there is a shortage of truly Zimbabwean prints. David Whitehead had some very good prints but the economic downturn forced them to shut down. Without being able to collaborate with bigger companies like this to use their equipment or access screen printing machines, creating my own printed textiles is too expensive. That's a hurdle I'm still figuring out. Zimbabwe doesn't have an identifiable aesthetic yet like West Africa's ankara print, I blame the fact that we were colonised so early, but with so many designers now springing up we're creating our own identity."
On Zimbabwe's Fashion Future
"When I first started there were only a few designers but now there are a lot of us pushing all sorts of different styles and aesthetics which is helping the industry to grow. Things are growing rapidly but young designers need more support, there's no infrastructure to protect most designers. If I have a bulk order for a store, I have to go and look for independent seamstresses which leaves my design and pattern open to theft. In a place with infrastructure I would go and source help from cooperatives or small manufacturing companies where there's more confidentiality."
"Zimbabwe's young designers need less fashion shows and more protection!"
On Being A Runway Rebel
"When you're starting out, fashion shows are the least of your worries - I spent two years building my brand before I started fashion shows because they're so time consuming and expensive. If you're not careful you'll show your clothes but end up with no money to buy the whole roll of fabric for you to produce the orders or to properly push the collection. That's the biggest downfall with Zimbabwean designers at the moment.
My advice to other emerging designers in Zimbabwe is to look at what your biggest competitor is doing and do the complete opposite of that. The person you're competing with probably already has a strong loyal customer base who are unlikely to leave them for you because people generally buy what they are used to. Most Zimbabweans don't really have a disposable income, so people taking risks is minimal.
You have to provide something different.
The good thing about being a fashion designer here is that it's an open playground, as long as you can execute your product well, you can push your own trend."
On Going International
"I don't create based on the international fashion seasons. I beat to my own drum because the weather here is beautiful year round so you can try almost anything design and colour wise. My own style is very bold and colourful. I'm a quiet person so my loudness comes through my clothing.
I'm working on putting my brand on an international level with basic things such as shipping & e-commerce but we don't even have active functioning paypal and postage is crazy expensive from Zimbabwe to abroad. I really don't want my customers paying more for shipping than the dress at this point, it just doesn't make sense to me."
For now Tanya's focusing on becoming a local powerhouse and is a regular on Harare's creative scene. Off duty, you'll probably find her enjoying the quiet at the lake having a BBQ and drinks with friends. If you're planning to hit up Harare for HIFA, she says the best places for some downtime near the festival in Avondale are St Elmo's for their desserts and Cafe Nush for their wraps. Or escape to the other side of town to Borrowdale's Mekka for their sushi, and Millers for some comforting pasta.
We love Tanya's timeless pieces, willingness to stand out and her refusal to bend to trends. Ultimately all she wants she says is "to make people look and feel good the best way I can." We hear you Tanya!
Author: Kiran Yoliswa is the Co-Founder of Styled By Africa.
"Some day, African design will not be synonymous with 'African print'."