Designer Gavin Rajah is embracing his Indian roots in his latest work, something he’s previously steered away from, writes

Thango Ntwasa



Arena Holdings PTY


Gavin Rajah is a name that has been on the lips of South African fashion lovers for the past 20 years. Throughout this time Rajah has explored multiple inspirations, but has not gravitated towards his Indian heritage to avoid being stereotyped as yet another sari maker. This year, all that changes. We speak to the designer about embracing a new aesthetic that includes his roots, African identity and creating a fashion community. Tell us about this upcoming collection and why it was important to shoot it in India? I had just finished a conference at Harvard where I spoke on fashion in Africa and what the decolonisation of fashion means for people. For instance, I straddle two cultures. There’s a distinct African sensibility and a cultural heritage that is Indian. It’s a unique identity but so much is entrenched and imposed on that identity which fits a Western narrative. So this time around, I wanted to shoot my pieces by styling them in a way that reminded me of India and my travels there. Can you tell us more about this collection? The idea was about how in the 1970s people kept going to India to “find themselves”, particularly white people. This could have been through meditating or practising yoga and this transitioned into hippies and Woodstock. There was this dreamlike escapism which was what I wanted to capture in the shoot. A lot of people I know are going to meditation retreats. Is this a rebirth for the brand? Definitely, especially now that I am working with younger designers. My thinking is challenging perceptions and making people think. And also moving away from being token designers because we can string a beautiful sentence together and have to be endorsed by Vogue. Before Kanye West went on his tangent, he was doing really cool stuff. He was putting together a lot of astute thinkers in his blackcentred stuff. It included editors from black American magazines other than Vogue. Can we expect more lifestyle experiences from the Gavin Rajah brand? I started something called Future Wear which is an experience for younger people. We need a sense of community and you cannot be invested in someone based on the time they spend in your studio. That’s not a sustainable mentorship, so part of what I’m trying to do is create platforms where young talent can talk about how to get connections, become techsavvy or be financially compliant. You have built a dedicated audience who have followed you from grassroots. How are you connecting to younger consumers? Over the years my clientele has become younger. I guess it speaks to who has a disposable income. Without mentioning names, a designer was selling a skirt for R30,000 and people were talking about it. But it takes a lot to get to the point where you can command someone to spend that amount of money. My audience does it because they are buying into a bigger vision of the brand and for the experiences that the brand creates behind shows. Younger people want to engage because they understand the difference between super-fast fashion and garments that are investment pieces. We try to make non-intimidating experiences for them which is important because wet end to over intellectualise fashion. For me, it’s important to educate.