Have international fashion brands given us more choice?

Walk through any shopping mall and you will be faced with international brand choices, mixed in with local ones. But, does the local fashion industry offer South Africans the same choice, quality and style that they get from international brands?

Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood talks to experts to get a feel for the South African fashion industry and the choices available to consumers.

The South African fashion industry is growing, not only with the increase in the number of local designers, but also in the choice available to consumers through international designers and companies entering the local market. International brands, such as Forever New, Forever 21, Zara, Mango and Top Shop have opened stores around South Africa.

Local online store Spree.co.za reveals: “With the launch of international brands and retailers in South Africa, plus locally designed and produced items being made more accessible through online stores, South Africans have never had as much choice as we have today.”

Why international means ‘pricey’

For many, buying big name international brands can be pricey. There are many factors that increase the price of the clothes, such as the exchange rate and import tax.

Monalisa Sam, retail fashion consultant at Tungwa Retail Solutions, states: “Some South African shoppers who travel abroad, find that the prices in internationally branded stores are higher than in their country of origin. This may be due to a number of input costs that come from replicating and exporting an offering in a foreign market.”

However, saving money by buying cheaper clothes isn’t always the better alternative.

“Paying less for a cheap imported fashion garment, may be foolhardy, especially when the garment shrinks, fades, distorts or falls apart after a few washes.  As the consumer matures (and spends their own money – and not just money from mom and dad), they begin to appreciate the value of locally designed and manufactured fashion garments,” notes Anita Stanbury, CEO of the South African Fashion Council (SAFC).

An increase in choice

Even though South African designers are making waves in the international market, Stanbury highlights that the novelty of having international brands in South Africa has resulted in less interest in local designer brands for mainstream or formal retail.

However, even with growing interest in international brands, fashion conscious consumers who want to stand out from the crowd are increasingly opting for local designers.

Stanbury explains: “The savvy local consumer, is however not wanting to wear fashionable items which thousands of other consumers are wearing, but is choosing to rather attend fashion shows, or look online at the amazing local design talent available – and is purchasing more from local stores and brands. The likes of South African Market (SAM), The Space, YDE, House of Napoleon, Spree and Kisua, are giving consumers access to a wide variety of local designer brands, with other independent designer stores springing up all over in malls and streets of SA.”

Spree points out that the public has responded positively to this increase in choice.

“A November 2014 survey conducted by Spree revealed that 86% of respondents have noticed the increase in labels and brands available and think there is a lot of choice available. Year-on-year figures indicate very positive growth in orders which shows customers continued trust in, and willingness to shop online as more brands and items are available to them,” adds Spree.

According to Spree, their research shows that local designers have been well received and perform better overall than the international brands that it has available on its website.

The rise of social media has also affected the fashion market, as consumers want immediate access to designs and styles that they see on international runaways.

Stanbury elaborates: “Young people in South Africa are no different from anywhere else in the world – and want to be seen to be wearing the latest fashion clothing and shoes, as soon as possible. It is because of this growth in fashion awareness, that many local and international fashion brands have seen growth in turnover.”

Stanbury adds: “With Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, Facebook, YouTube and many other social media platforms, fashion is no longer an unknown entity which is drip fed to consumers via print media fashion magazines, or popular music videos on TV. Young people now have access to what is trending anywhere in the world – as it trends.”

The South African fashion industry

The annual revenue for the formal clothing, textiles, footwear and leather market in South Africa, according to Stanbury, is approximately R170 billion. For the clothing industry on its own, it is about R60 billion.

“The local fashion industry can generate a profit – although competition from imported fashion brands is a challenge, when consumers aren’t savvy enough to understand quality relative to fashionability,” states Stanbury.

Many local designers, such as David Tlale, Thula Sindi and Hendrik Vermeulen Couture have shown at international fashion shows and events. Stanbury believes that South African designers are as good as international designers, as they offer “something unique to the runways around the world.”

South Africans are also becoming more aware of local designers. “Almost 77% of respondents to a survey conducted by Spree in March 2015, said that they know more South African designers today than they did a year ago, and almost 96% recognised that Spree.co.za supports and sells South African designer items,” explains Spree.

With increasing interconnectedness of the world, it does not take long for designs from the runways of Paris and New York, to make it to South African stores.

“With the advent of the Fast Fashion [or] Quick Response Model, which is being adopted by most of the local South African retailers, consumers are going to find their favourite fashion items at all of the major South African retailers, at affordable prices, locally designed and manufactured, within six to eight weeks of the item trending on social media. That makes local fashion both profitable for South African retailers, and attractive for fashionable and moneywise South African consumers,” explains Stanbury.

“With the response to our designers and brands in the international markets, I can see that we will have to increase our manufacturing skills base much more, to cope with export orders to other parts of Africa, and the world,” adds Stanbury.

The effect of international brands

“The influx of international brands and retailers has meant that local retailers have had to be innovative to maintain market share. Similarly, local retailers are squeezed for margins as it now means that they have to offer better products at a reduced price to compete effectively with international brands. This would also explain why some local retailers have opted to bring international experts to head up their organisations so as to benefit from a global mind-set and best retail practice to maintain growth and expansion to the rest of the continent,” notes Sam.

According to Stanbury, the increase in the number of international brands and designers has resulted in more role-players vying for the same audiences’ attention.

“In some ways this competition (if applied fairly) is healthy, as it stops complacency, and forces local retailers, brands and designers to up their game, [as well as] to begin to design more accurately for the South African market, and to offer better quality products than the importers, at comparable prices, but more appropriate for the market and consumer in South Africa,” says Stanbury.

Sam reveals: “International retailers adopt a strategy of occupying a niche market within the existing South African consumer market.  They understand that as consumers become more informed and exposed, they become aspirational and so as their needs change they tend to migrate to a new brand offering or shop between multiple brands. [For example,] a consumer shops gets the basics at a Mr Price but also shops for more expensive or special occasion items at Zara or Mango (both international brands).”

Whether you like to splurge on your clothes, or go for your basic staples, you can’t deny that fashion is changing, with South African and international influence making its way into our stores.