Stephen Coan
5 minute read
31 Jan 2008

Unpicking the fashion business

Stephen Coan

Renato Palmi’s book takes an in-depth look at SA’s designers

“Oh, the Tibet guy.” That’s the standard response if you mention the name Renato Palmi. But he’s also a respected commentator and expert on South Africa’s clothing and fashion industry and you’ll be hearing from him in this guise as he’s stepped down as the front man for the Tibet Society of South Africa.

“I’d been doing it for 10 years and it was time to withdraw and let others take over,” he says. “It all began with a reading of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. This raised issues of justice and I felt passionately about it.”

Fashion is Palmi’s other long-standing passion and his consultancy, ReDress, grew out of his research into the local industry. “There was clearly a need for someone to critique the industry honestly,” he says. “Someone with no loyalties to anyone — just to the industry itself.”

As well as maintaining a website, at, Palmi also issues a monthly newsletter and is a part-time lecturer at various educatonal institutions around Durban.

More people are employed in the clothing manufacturing sector in KwaZulu-Natal than in any other province; the Western Cape comes second. “There are hundreds of CMTs [cut, make and trim operations] here,” says Palmi. “They range in size from employing three to 20 people. Some are registered, some are not. Those that are not say it costs too much to maintain the paperwork.”

Palmi says Durban is also influential in fashion design. “The market for the high-end fashion market is small in Durban, so the designers tend to go to Johannesburg or Cape Town where the clientele is bigger. But Durban input into this area is significant.”

Palmi’s recently published book Inside-Out: South African Fashion Designers Sewing Success takes an in-depth look at the role of local designers and their relation to the clothing and textile sectors.

South African designers have no problem when it comes to creativity, says Palmi. “They are highly innovative, some pushing the boundaries of creative art, and several are recognised both nationally and internationally.”

But they do have a problem when it comes to producing garments for the ready-to-wear market, “in meeting the prices consumers demand, being competitive in the wake of globalisation and adapting to the changing face of the international clothing and textile industries”.

While haute couture gives free rein to fashion designers’ imagination, the industry as a whole cannot be sustained solely on this level,” says Palmi. “Designers need to penetrate the ready-to-wear market if their sector is to grow. They need to create employment for the broader clothing and textile industry, and so help to develop a viable and profitable area of the South African economy.”

Inside-Out reviews the current state of the industry and then looks at how this can be done.

“When it comes to fashion, people see the glamour,” says Palmi. “But they don’t see the pressures, the hard work.” It was the pressures and the hard work required that Palmi was intent on unpacking. “I wanted to understand that relationship; the checks and balances, the pitfalls.” So he did extensive interviews with local designers, including Marianne Fassler, Sifiso Mthethwa and Iqbal Hoosain.

Palmi was able to find the success stories worth emulating and the pitfalls to avoid. “It is important for designers to realise that they are running a business,” says Palmi. “Designers also need to find suitable business partners so that while they focus on creative work, their partner drives the commercial and marketing arm of the operation.”

But some pitfalls are just facts of life. Like January 1, 2005, when the global quantitative quotas in the textile industry were abolished. As a result retail buyers could buy from suppliers anywhere in the world, and they went for the cheapest price. South Africa was flooded with Chinese clothing imports.

“We sustained huge job losses as local manufacterers were unable to compete,” says Palmi. “The jobs were mainly held by women. As a rule of thumb you can estimate that one person employed sustains five other people. So the impact of job losses of 2 000 or 3 000 needs to be multiplied by five.”

However, says Palmi, although it had dramatic effects this rise in imports was nothing new, it had happened before. Think of the “Made in Hong Kong” products that flooded the marketplace in the fifties and sixties.

“Today it’s not only products from China, but also from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.”

And, you might add: Myanmar aka Burma. However, major clothing retailer Mr Price no longer stocks items produced in that country. Thanks, in part, to Palmi. “I was invited to the opening of their new shop in the Pavilion. I began looking at the labels — that’s something I just do automatically — and I found ‘Made in Myanmar’ everywhere.”

After 45 years of military rule Burma is not exactly a bastion of freedom and light. Palmi did some research, contacted the Free Burma movement and got details of working hours and conditions in the country’s clothing manufacturing industry.

He submitted an article to Mr Price for comment prior to publication. “I told them what I had found and asked if doing business with Burma could be considered ethical and morally just. Mr Price said they had a monitoring team there, that there were no sweat shops and workers were happy. But two weeks later came the riots — that was the catalyst. Financial media raised questions about the the morality of trading with Burma. And Mr Price decided it was prudent to stop.”

“Retailers need to be more transparent with their purchasing behaviour; consumers have a right to know where and how clothes are made,” says Palmi, adding that consumers should also support their local industry.

“The idea of fair trade extends to the local industry. It also means supporting your local industry and creating job opportunities here.

“The local industry has great protential. We could reach great heights, but we need to think local. We need to get consumers to support local products. At present their buying behaviour is dictated by overseas markets as portrayed in the glossy magazines. Local designers must market themselves more to consumers. People say we want to buy local, but where can they buy from? Often it’s just small boutiques, often owned by designers. There’s no real holistic platform for the industry.”

• Inside Out by Renato Palmi is published by Just Done Publications.