Namibian Fashion Through The Years

By: Rukee Kaakunga

If you were to tell someone a decade ago about what the Namibian fashion industry has been witnessing of late, they would not believe you.

The industry is thriving in so many ways. Although challenges continue to hinder it’s growth, there has been enough good news to make any fashion enthusiast in the country hopeful for the future.

For the first time in our history, we witnessed the very first fashion week last November with fashion creatives coming together to celebrate fashion in the capital city of Windhoek. While the event itself proved to be an organisational disaster – with four days of showcasing being squeezed into one day of marathon shows due to rainy weather – the platform mainly given to Namibian designers was undeniable.

Established brands such as South Africa’s David Tlale, Angola’s Manzvat c/o Nankhova Alves and Namibia’s Ruusa Namuhuya shared center stage with upcoming brands such as the self-taught design duo of XIX April. This was all in front of an audience that included major media houses from across Southern African.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Cynthia Schimming at Cape Town Fashion Week in the 1990’s

The vibrancy of today’s fashion scene is something that was non-existent in the early years following Namibia’s independence, with the creative industry in general struggling to find footing in a new and independent nation.

“We also had our shortcomings but were fortunate in the sense that many times we showcased our work at big events like international expos and for big organizations. We would only spend on fabric while the models, lighting and everything else was paid for by these organizations,” said Cynthia Schimming of her early years as a fashion designer in the 1990’s. The seasoned designer now runs a private studio, works as a wardrobe designer on some of the country’s’ biggest theater and screen productions and has worked on various projects for the government. 

From the late 1990’s, fashion models also thrived on an international level. In 1999, Benvinda Mundenge proved for the first time that Namibian girls could dream of making it as a model beyond the country’s borders as she was the first from the country to win Face of Africa. In 2006, the country once again shone at the competition with Venantia Otto following in her footsteps. The leggy model still pursues a modeling career in South Africa.

At the time, fashion was ruled by a group of fashion designers who paved the way for today’s generation. The likes of Melani Harteveld-Becker, Yvonne Conradie, Liesel Louw, Bianca Lehnerdt,  Andrea Kuhn, Sweetness Mubita and Robyn Nel just to mention a few. 

“We had to work very hard because the competition among ourselves was tough. Some of us worked two to three jobs. Teaching, working on movies, training and working in our own studios. We did not have sponsors. In fact the only sponsor that I can think of was Air Namibia. If we have to travel outside the country to show case abroad,” Schimming said.

Participation at international fashion events was relatively easy for designers in this era with corporate sponsors playing a big role in financing these trips – something that doesn’t happen much today.

Namibian Fashion Today

Models dressed in ‘Damage’ by Nicoleen Menjono at Windhoek Fashion Week, November 2016. Photo credit : Jonathan Solomons

In 2014, we saw the establishment of the country’s very first body aimed at supporting and protecting the fashion industry. The council then handed over the reigns to a newer board in March 2016. The new board has since taken over the demanding role of propelling the fashion industry in Namibia forward.

Council member, Ingo Shanyenge, is hoping that the second edition of fashion week goes better and that the industry benefits more in terms of corporate sponsorships for fashion designers. “Corporates don’t really have trust in the industry so we have to work hard to earn that trust and confidence from them,” he said. The designer, who is known for his urban aesthetic and clean finishes, is approaching a corporate company to help fund his upcoming fashion show for the first time in his career. He sees this as one of the avenues that fashion designers can take in order to fund big projects that are usually too expensive to pull off single-handed.

Apart from funding, Shanyenge hopes that the industry takes marketing and promotion more seriously. “We’re still at grassroots level. We don’t have enough fashion events like pop-up events, fashion festivals and although there’s one or two fashion shows popping up every other weekend, they are not promoted enough,” he added.

Several Other Challenges Persist.

The industry is saturated with many who pose as designers, models or fashion photographers without the right credentials or know-how. In the age of overselling and over-hyping, many get away with it while those who are the real deal struggle in terms of marketing their product to the masses.

Funding, once again is named as a major hurdle to getting the council to carry out it’s full mandate.

There are currently no local fashion publications, with our retail shelves inundated with South African ones. Media in general does not cover the sector nearly enough and to date, music hogs the spotlight in entertainment reporting by most newspapers.

Namibia still struggles to provide fashion designers with affordable retail spaces to sell their work and almost all our malls are dominated with South African shops and brands. At the moment, only one Namibia retailer can proudly say they they sell 100% Namibian produced garments but even that space is reserved for brands produced by that company while online selling is still a small niche market used by a select few.

The industry also struggles with organisations who still use the services of local designers either without paying or underpaying them. Some blatantly prefer using designers from outside Namibia, something that locals have bemoaned for years.

It’s not all bad news though. Over the years, Namibians have become passionate about buying local brands. Big red carpet events went from being a showcase of boutique fashion to a celebration of Namibian fashion designers, make-up artists and stylists. Local artists have also gotten on the bandwagon and we’ve seen some cool collaborations between fashion houses and musicians, visual artists as well as film and theater novices.

This September, we are to witness the first award show where Namibians in fashion will receive recognition for their contribution to the growing industry. While some may criticize the upcoming awards as a mere popularity contest, one cannot deny what it means for the industry to be moving in a direction where hard work is rewarded and those who are consistent in adding to the advancement of the industry are recognized for their efforts.