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The fashion district 2
17 February 2008

While it has taken a while to get going, Neil Fraser still believes the fashion district is "all about visionaries who have the ability to turn dreams into on-the-ground realities".

Neil Fraser
Neil Fraser

I HAVE just looked up previous Citichats in which I wrote about the fashion district - the first time was in November 2000 then November 2001, February 2003 and March 2004.

In between, I have given short reports on progress - or the lack thereof! I can't believe that so much time has passed; in fact it's nine years since the proposal to develop a fashion district was first formally mooted in the 1999 Inner City Economic Study by Professors Tomlinson and Rogerson.

In one of those previous Citichats I wrote that the fashion district was "an area whose grittiness belies its incredible potential". Well, some of that potential is sloooowly starting to emerge from the grittiness that still characterises the precinct. I mentioned last week that investments in the area over the recent past are evidently nearly at the half-a-billion rand mark.

Other comments I made previously also still apply. "The pavements still double as extended showrooms for the shops as well as serving as open-air 'factories' for hundreds of informal seamstresses. The whole area (Kerk to Market and Von Wielligh to End streets) is a bustling, somewhat chaotic, scene vaguely reminiscent of yet totally different from the golden era of South Africa's rag trade.

Then it was the country's manufacturing centre for women's clothing - trolleys hung with dresses energetically pushed from factory to shop by young designer hopefuls, streets clogged with railway delivery trucks and construction equipment as developers tried to keep pace with the demand for manufacturing space.

Industry collapses
But by the late 1980s formal clothing manufacture in the area's many sweatshops had disappeared as the South African industry virtually collapsed. Now, over the past few years, the district has again acted as a magnet, attracting largely informal manufacturers and seamstresses.

Many of the manufacturers are from other parts of Africa - Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast - all adding to the cosmopolitan flavour of the area, all adding to "Africa-chic" in clothing design and manufacture.

Rees Mann, the visionary "architect" of the district who is leading the metamorphosis of the area and its community, likens the fashion district today to London of 1948, "poised to explode with energy and creativity".

Mann would know, for his father, a bespoke tailor, arrived from London in that year - 1948. Father and son witnessed the rise and fall of the fashion industry over the next 34 years. But, even after its demise, Mann had a belief in the potential of the area.

He opened a business, at 109 Pritchard Street, SewAfrica, that would support and enable small, medium and micro enterprises' access to the industry, "by keeping stock available at prices which only wholesalers could offer, by allowing SMMEs to buy goods in small quantities, by pleating individual garments when other manufacturers would only take large quantities and even by making patterns available in six different languages, enabling people of different cultures to sew".

Training
Later he added training facilities to enable individuals in the informal clothing manufacturing sector to obtain national qualifications, plus facilities for holding fashion shows without having to pay the exorbitant costs of hiring formal establishments.

In early 2004, Mann launched AfSew Centre, also in Pritchard Street, in fact diagonally opposite his earlier project. Comprising six 500 square metre floors plus ground floor and basement, the building was built in 1966 specifically for the clothing industry. It was later used as a diamond cutting works but stood unoccupied for probably 10 years.

The refurbished building now provides facilities for emerging and established fashion designers and provides offices for the Fashion Institute, a non-profit organisation established to oversee the development of the fashion district.

A few years back the City, through the Johannesburg Property Company, expropriated a site that faces on to both Pritchard and President streets, between Troye and Polly streets. The previous structures were partly demolished and the site redeveloped by the Johannesburg Development Agency as a fashion square, to be known as the Fashion Kapitol.

The development will offer retail space to a number of designers, provide restaurant facilities, offices for the Fashion Institute and, most importantly, an outdoor fashion ramp with seating as well as indoor exhibition space. The project has been beset by all kinds of problems that have seriously delayed progress but it will open, hopefully, in a few months time.

Refurbishment
On the northeastern corner of Pritchard and Polly streets, the Affordable Housing Company, Afhco, a major private sector developer of mainly residential accommodation in the inner city, has refurbished an apartment building, while one block west, City Prop is refurbishing a commercial building with retail on the ground floor.

The Gallo building on the corner of Troye and President streets backs on to the new Fashion Kapitol and was bought for refurbishment a while back. This art deco building was built in 1936 and "conceived in its entirety as an advertisement for a record company. Gramophone records in relief, a sculptured crowing cock and stars were strewn all over the façade, while attention was focused on the corner section by convex and concave planes." (from Mining Camp to Metropolis, by G-M van der Waal)

Many of the buildings in the precinct have historic significance and provide an architectural-style smorgasbord.

Now, a number of other developers have started investing in the area and we should see it really start to blossom to its full potential over the next year or so.

In 2000, I concluded my Citichat regarding the fashion district, with these words: "It's all about people, about the clashing and merging of cultures and history resulting in economic regeneration, in products that are relevant for today made by people who were denied the opportunity to do so yesterday. It's all about visionaries who have the ability to turn dreams into on-the-ground realities."

Although progress has been slow, I still believe that.

Cheers, Neil

 

Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust Walking Tour
Braamfontein Cemetery
Saturday, 23 February
Flitting like butterflies we prise out the pioneers. Not the heroes but those who brought comfort, fun and laughter to the mining camps - barmaids, bakers, entertainers, with the odd miner thrown in to show we haven't completely lost our marbles. We can't vouch for them all but they are pretty well the 80 miners with a dash of quirky chaps who fell on their heads, illustrating the dangers of living in a mining town.

The cost is R70, and booking is through Computicket outlets countrywide, on 083 915 8000 or on the Computicket website.

For more information, telephone Gaynor Antonakis on weekdays between 9am -and 1pm on 011 482 3349. Meet at the cemetery, just beyond the office, at 2pm. Enter from Graf Street off Smit Street.

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Last Updated on 18 February 2008