Clive, the constructor of a South African fairy tale

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South African fashion designer Clive Rundle has reshaped womenswear in Africa. His atelier was already operative during the Apartheid regime in the ‘80s and now produces the most wanted pieces of garment in the market.

“Clive is a constructionist”. This is how Conrad De Mol, apprentice of Clive Rundle, describes the work of the South African master of fashion. And he adds: “he does not follow any trend, he does not copy. He just takes his fabric and creates something unique, transforming any leftover into a masterpiece”.

A thin line divides scrap from a dress worth thousands of rands in the finest boutiques of Johannesburg in South Africa. Clive Rundle surfs it to manufacture his singular attires. His gothic outfits do not align to the patterns of African clothing. The bright colours and the geometric shapes of the local tradition are best found, as De Mol insists, “in the townships, where they are produced and sold on the streets, informally. The rest is just a copy”.

Yet, Clive’s artwork represents Africa and defines a purely South African style. His crude authenticity well matches his love for worn-off fabrics. He gives new life to his materials and redefines their meaning and use, like only an African crafter could do. In his studio, nothing is thrown away or wasted.

He shows with pride and excitement a small recycled tire shoe: “I found this many years ago at Mai Mai market. I love that place, as it does not attract tourists and is real. I often go for a walk in Mai Mai, where I always see something new”. Then he grabs a dress he made, an elegant white robe spotted with burn marks. He smiles: “It took us forever to burn it”.

Clive’s artwork is an evergreen of fashion. More than thirty years after he started producing clothes, his elaborate patterns are still recognized as the most innovative in the country. They represent a variety of styles, from gothic to deco, from frugal to avant-garde. They also satisfy all ages and ethnicities of the so called ‘rainbow country’. However, they all contain the distinctive features produced by Clive’s imagination and passion for details. Cold colours are predominant, accompanied to elegant shapes and authentic fabrics.

Creation is the distinctive concept of Clive’s design. “My European colleagues”, he says, “won’t believe that I can manufacture everything on my own, and sometimes I make strips and strings out of old clothes”. The use of recycled materials allows Clive Rundle and his team to match textiles and patterns that belong to different époques. Different styles interlink to converge into an exquisite synthesis beyond time and space.

However, art requires time and is not – alas – productive. Worthy of international museums of fashion, not all Clive’s clothes can be reproduced on a mass scale. This is why the new line ‘Clive by Clive Rundle’ was introduced in 2014 at the South African Fashion Week. The 2015 winter collection is now on sale in national stores.

Clive Rundle’s fashion brand is in constant evolution. In 2013, he decided to launch his products into the retail market. It is thanks to the cooperation with Anne Chapelle and her company BVBA32, in Antwerp, Belgium, that Rundle identified the lacks in South African fashion design and started a long term process of adaptation to the international scene. He explains: “Anne made me realize that my products are pieces of art, very hardly sold to the masses”. Hence the birth of ‘Clive by Clive Rundle’, a more affordable line with better appeal on the public. Soon, a new line will be presented, designed for lower income earning females.

Clive's studio best represents his philosophy. Different items are associated with surprising irony in a complex and detailed patchwork.

Clive’s studio best represents his philosophy. Different items are associated with surprising irony in a complex and detailed patchwork.

The workers of the textile industry had an important role in the struggle against Apartheid. In 1973, 61 000 labourers participated in 160 strikes in the city of Durban, fighting the ridiculously low wages of the national Frame Industry Group. Furthermore, the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW) had a major responsibility in the creation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985.

Clive Rundle’s debut into South African fashion was in 1983. Born in Zimbabwe, he studied fashion design in Johannesburg and travelled overseas to learn the style of the finest artists of Europe and America. When he opened his first store, in 1989, the segregationist regime known as Apartheid was still operative. “Those were the golden years of the textile industry”, he says. “Products could not be imported from abroad and the syndicates had hundreds of thousands of affiliates”.

The workers of the textile industry had an important role in the struggle against Apartheid. In 1973, 61 000 labourers participated in 160 strikes in the city of Durban, fighting the ridiculously low wages of the national Frame Industry Group. Furthermore, the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW) had a major responsibility in the creation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985.

After the end of the regime, however, the opening of South Africa to the international market caused a collapse of the textile industry. The suburb of Doornfontein in Johannesburg, where Clive Rundle’s workshop is located, quickly became a dangerous neighbourhood affected by crime and poverty. Analysing the situation in the ‘90s, Rundle explains: “We had to reinvent the market and renew our products. Since then, the South African manufacturers have not managed to meet the standards of the international competition, as our customers still prefer to buy foreign brands and our designers keep copying the European and American classics”.

On Clive Rundle's desk lay piles of books, sketches and magazines. Here is where the creative process starts.

On Clive Rundle’s desk lay piles of books, sketches and magazines. Here is where the creative process starts.

Inside the studio, Clive's workers sew the fabrics to produce his clothes.

Inside the studio, Clive’s workers sew the fabrics to produce his clothes.

Gothic and elegant outfits are Clive's speciality. The dresses were presented in 2015 at the South African Fashion Week.

Gothic and elegant outfits are Clive’s speciality. The dresses were presented in 2015 at the South African Fashion Week.

On the other hand, political liberation resulted in intellectual and artistic freedom. Its effects are clear, as thousands of young entrepreneurs are currently investing in fashion and uncountable new labels are established. South African Fashion Week, which showcases the most innovative products of the country, attracts a broader and more diverse public every year. The SANAA Africa Festival is the ideal platform for young productions and artists. The company Sew Africa and Fashion Kapitol, a textile district created by entrepreneur Rees Mann in the same area where Rundle operates, are reshaping Doornfontein and fostering new generations of designers through intensive training.

Despite the intellectual rumble, South African fashion is still too young to reach the red carpets of Paris, Milan and New York. Clive Rundle points the finger at the mentality of his countrymen: “All international brands are born of the symbiosis of a creative mind and a business oriented figure. We struggle to convert our art into a product. Also, we don’t have enough mentorship and training”.

A national fashion renaissance is possible. To make it blossom, the designers will have to reshape their ateliers and seek a unique and distinctive style. Clive Rundle is leading the way with his cunning artwork. The next generations will recognize in his clothes the seeds of a sustainable, inventive, modern and characteristic South African design.

Clive Rundle’s clothes are on sale in national stores and in his shop in Rosebank Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa.

This article was written by ALESSANDRO PARODI

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