Style meets sustainability: Ethical fashion in Johannesburg

By: Virgin Atlantic USA

July 26, 2016

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Jo’burg based designer SEIS!isabelle showcases her sustainable creations on the runway at South African Fashion Week; Image by Ivan Naude

Retail therapy. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. If you love to shop and travel, then stocking up on the latest fashion is likely something you indulge in around the globe. But do you ever question the environmental and social impacts of the clothes in your basket?

Perhaps surprisingly, 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint comes from the apparel industry (to put this into perspective, the aviation industry counts for just 2%). As a result, sustainable, ethical fashion is becoming big news. In fact, online search interest here in the US for the terms ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ is at an all-time high, with more people than ever looking for the facts behind a clothing item’s production.

It’s a global issue, and one very close to our hearts (our “Change is in the Air” strategy is dedicated to leading the aviation industry towards a more sustainable future). So, we decided to zone in on a Virgin Atlantic destination where some of the best sustainable fashion entrepreneurs in the biz are out there doing their eco-friendly thing – in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Tracing your clothes: the story behind the supply chain

To be clear, when we say ethical fashion, we mean fashion that minimizes negative impacts on the environment (in terms of design, manufacturing and sourcing). It’s pro-fairness, and anti-fast fashion. For example, certain synthetic materials (such as polyester) can take up to a thousand years to decompose – not good. The chemicals used to make such materials can contaminate water supplies – also not good. Ergo, natural materials are an obvious choice for sustainable fashion companies. It’s changes like this that can make a huge difference to both social and environmental impact, and give individuals like you and I easy access to sustainable fashion.

In fashion, a huge problem when it comes to sustainability is traceability, or lack thereof. According to Vogue, even some designers don’t know where their clothes are manufactured. A lot of people making noise in the industry are trying to raise awareness of this, and are encouraging brands to be more transparent.

Inside the studio of Johannesburg-based ethical designer SIES!isabelle; Image by Milk Photography - Anneme Bothma

Inside the studio of Johannesburg-based ethical designer SIES!isabelle; Image by Milk Photography – Anneme Bothma

Fashion Revolution was created after 1,134 people were killed and another 2,500 injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history. “Fashion Revolution has sparked a global conversation about the social and environmental issues facing the fashion industry,” says Carry Somers, Co-founder and Director. “We now have teams in over 90 countries around the world. We have been particularly successful over the past three years at engaging the public in these issues and giving them tangible ways to become part of the solution.”

Excitingly, the Jo’burg branch of the Fashion Revolution team only launched this year. These guys are on a mission to make fashion ”an industry which values people, the environment, creativity and profits in equal measure”. They want to encourage people to ask the question, ‘who made my clothes?’ “The public do not have enough information about where and how their clothes are made. Shoppers have the right to know that their money is not supporting exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental destruction,” explains Somers. “It was recently reported that Islamic State has taken over three quarters of the cotton fields in Syria. How do we as consumers know that we aren’t supporting ISIS or slave labour with the next cotton garment we buy?

“There is no way to hold companies and governments to account if we can’t see what is truly happening behind the scenes. This is why transparency is so essential.”

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Johannesburg’s first Fashion Revolution event take place earlier this year at Work Shop New Town; Image courtesy Fashion Revolution

Naturally, social media has given Fashion Revolution the opportunity to amplify their message around the world, with their hashtags garnering 156 million organic impressions on Twitter and Instagram in April 2016 during Fashion Revolution Week (more on that later). This has helped them elevate their voice even further where it really matters: “We are also working towards policy and legislative change. We participated in high level EU, G7, UN and COP21 events last year [and] co-organized events at the European Parliament, House of Commons, House of Lords and beyond,” says Somers.

Fashion Revolution invites brands, retailers and distributors to get involved by revealing the ‘secrets’ of their supply chain – the idea being, the more companies that demonstrate transparency, the more the industry could potentially transform.

“Our initial focus is highlighting the stories behind brands that produce clothing ethically, sharing imagery from their studios and factories combined with polished fashion-esque imagery, portraying our brands as professional as well as ethical,” explains Isabelle Lotter, Johannesburg Fashion Revolution Co-ordinator (and a local designer).

Fashion Revolution also aim to help normal consumers (that’s you) make a difference. This first started with Fashion Revolution Day back in 2015, and has now developed into Fashion Revolution Week, which, in Somers’ words, is “a week of activities around the world to demand a fairer, cleaner, more transparent and more beautiful fashion industry.”

Fashion Revolution Day takes place worldwide - San Francisco’s event pictured above (produced by WildlifeWorks and Ecologique Fashion); Image by Bryan Berry

Fashion Revolution Day takes place worldwide – San Francisco’s event pictured above (produced by WildlifeWorks and Ecologique Fashion); Image by Bryan Berry

US-based Starre Vartan, founder of Eco-Chick, was involved in San Francisco’s last Fashion Revolution Day. “Eco-Chick was happy to provide media support for the event both before and after, and on the day I marched through the streets of San Francisco holding signs and chanting ‘Who Made YOUR clothes?’ to shoppers in the Union Square area,” she explains. “The idea was to get people to think about who made their clothes and what kind of conditions they were working under.”

Vartan’s words here are key – we need to get people to think about who made their clothes. If we can get people to do this one simple thing, we’re already making huge progress. “Like the organic food movement, it has just taken time – even though so much information is available to us online, it still takes a lot of energy and years of communicating around issues to make change,” says Vartan. “Organic food had a 20-year head-start, so ethical fashion is just catching up.”

Putting sustainability in the spotlight

Johannesburg-based label Babatunde combine African wax prints with western shapes for their designs; Image by Jurie Potgieter

Johannesburg-based label Babatunde combine African wax prints with western shapes for their designs; Image by Jurie Potgieter

Launched back in 2005, Eco-Chick is the world’s first website to cover ethical fashion, beauty and travel for women. Over the last decade, Vartan has seen first-hand how things have developed. “Sustainability is definitely becoming more and more of a consideration, and awareness has grown tremendously since I began reporting on it, which is super-hopeful,” she explains.

Something that has certainly improved is the accessibility of sustainable fabrics. “In 2005, I met some amazing women in NYC at Green Drinks who were designing with eco-materials, but it was incredibly challenging for them; sustainable fabrics were hard to find, and they told me they spent half their time just tracking down textiles that weren’t polluting and destructive,” says Vartan.

“Now, there are resources like the Fashion Positive Materials Collection, so designers can access materials that have been checked at every level, from how they are produced, to what type of energy they utilize, to what dyes are used, to finishes (the latter two processes can create incredibly toxic runoff that in many countries is just dumped into local water supplies).”

Undoubtedly, this is excellent news for designers, and in the States, awareness is growing right at the source. “Even smaller fashion-design degree programs in the US are teaching students – who make up the next generation of designers – about impact, which is something most previous generations of designers never even considered,” explains Vartan. “In general, I think people in design industries are widely understanding that how they design has a huge impact on the future we are all going to be living in.

“They are getting the real truth – that we are all connected, that resources are finite, that designing for disposability (“fast fashion” within the clothing industry) is not only bad design, it’s morally problematic, and that there are better, smarter ways to do business.”

This kind of support is invaluable for new designers, but it’s also crucial for entrepreneurs. Step forward the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, based in the heart of Johannesburg. An initiative of Virgin Unite, the business coaching and mentorship programs are designed to provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the skills, knowledge and opportunities needed to grow their business. A huge part of this is inspiring them to really make a change and step things up a gear in their chosen industry. Sustainability – as a huge factor to be considered in the future of all businesses – is a key component of this inspiration.

And for the non-designers, you can already make a change at home by swapping where you shop, explains Vartan, “If you are into clothes and fashion, Eco-Chick is a great place to start, and Magnifeco and Ecouterre are wonderful too.”

Of course, it’s about a change in attitude too, no matter where you are in the world. Vartan advises, “Start with the thing you are passionate about and work on making that your focus for sustainability education. You will care more about learning about the subject, and will become even more of an expert on something you care about.”

A South African revival

Babatunde’s latest collections; Image by Jurie Potgieter

Babatunde’s latest collections; Image by Jurie Potgieter

To find out more about what the ethical fashion scene is like in South Africa, we spoke to Gareth Cowden, founder of concept brand Babatunde. “I guess we’re all seeing how sustainable our businesses are currently,” he explains. “The clothing and textile industry has been dying, but recently that has started changing.”

When he says ‘dying’, Cowden is referring to the opening of South Africa’s economy by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the 1990s, an act that allowed competition from Asia and lead to mass factory closures and job losses in SA. However, clothes manufacturing in SA is gradually coming back to life. “A lot of chain stores and other retailers who used to manufacture in the East are now returning to SA manufacturers for differing reasons,” says Cowden. “I think Africans and South Africans now want to support local brands and businesses.

“I think South Africans are noticing that our ideas and designs are currently being noticed and influencing some Western trends.”

‘Influencing’ is an understatement. When celebrities like Stevie Wonder and Solange Knowles start wearing a brand (on stage, no less), the world sits up and pays attention. Babatunde’s designs fuse striking African wax prints with western shapes. Their products are varied; think striking trilbies, clutch bags, caps, bow ties, umbrellas, pith helmets, iPad cases and more.

Evidently, online shopping is helping budding fashion entrepreneurs in South Africa, like Cowden, to realise their dreams and reach a worldwide audience.

“Other celebrities like Erykah Badu and Damon Albarn – as well as local celebs – were seen wearing our products,” reveals Cowden. “Our products were also featured in magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler, Wallpaper, Vogue Italia, the Financial Times ‘How To Spend It’ magazine and various blogs and digital magazines.”

This is likely the part where fashion experts would say something like “African fashion is having a moment”, but truly, what’s happening means much more than that. This isn’t just about making clothes that look great. It’s about cultural education, and leading the way to restore the industry’s respectability from the inside out, so to speak.

“South Africa has such an amazing collection of designers,” explains Lotter. “In a developing country it is imperative for creatives to draw from, as well as develop, the skills and crafts of the artisans they work with.”

“The [sustainable fashion] industry is new but growing,” agrees Tammy Nicol, South Africa Co-Ordinator for Fashion Revolution. “We have a large craft and artisan community which is now beginning to show up on the runways through accessories and printed on garments.

“Africa is very in vogue now and there is a lot of interest in African design at the moment, so it’s the perfect way for local designers to work with local communities and get more involved in their own country, instead of the tradition of flowing the overseas trends.”

Culture for sale

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RHTC’s recent pop-up tour saw them display goods on an ethical custom-built stall; Image courtesy The Playground

Let’s chat a little more about cultural education. Ethical South African fashion site RHTC (that’s ‘Returning Home to Create’) sells culture. No, they really do – it’s their tagline. “What we mean by us selling culture is that we specialize in retailing African local brands that fluently translate our social landscape,” explains founder Mpumelelo Mfula. “So our job is to find the relevant brands and position RHTC in a way that [makes us] accessible to brands who are ready to be distributed.”

In order to fully represent a spectrum of African sub-cultures, RHTC sell a mix of brands and products. “We work with a number of brands that represent and translate various sub-cultures in Africa that are influenced by our native cultures, [including] modern urban African street culture, and some western influence, because that is a fair translation of our society and consumption trends.”

And how exactly can fashion represent such complex layers of culture?

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Unlearn Africa use traditional Sotho blankets in their designs; Image courtesy RHTC

“We have brands such as Unlearn Africa, whose backpacks are made with traditional Sotho blankets that are said to have been integrated into the Sotho culture through meeting with European travelers,” Mfula explains.

“Ntomb’entle dolls speak to the current project of decolonizing African identity and instilling authenticity, and parents are starting to introduce this culture to their children using these black dolls dressed in traditional regalia for context.

“The Uniconz are amongst the new wave of brands that speak the same language as kids in New York and Nigerian urban streets, with offerings that are of the same style and quality that would be found on the streets of Nairobi or Amsterdam.”

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South African based street wear brand specializes in concept and design; Image courtesy RHTC

Sourcing ethical fashion in Johannesburg

So, how can you experience all of this in real-time? Check out some of Jo-burg’s sustainable fashion highlights.

Work Shop New Town

Based in Johannesburg’s creative hub of Newtown, this innovative retail concept houses over 100 of the best local fashion, design and lifestyle brands. Discover clothing, jewelry, furniture, ceramics and more – all fused together with authentic African style and design.

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Mon Âme is one of many brands housed within the Work Shop Newtown space; Image by Chris Saunders

A particularly good store is Mon Âme, as it houses creations by some of Africa’s most sought-after designers, including Buki Akib, Michelle Ludek, Adele Dejak and Umdabu.

Visit the Work Shop New Town website to find out more.

Fashion Revolution’s recommendations

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SEIS!isabelle at South African Fashion Week; Image by Ivan Naude

Isabelle gave us the lowdown on the best places to stock up on eco fashion in Johannesburg: “A great place for people to visit to support local designers would be 44 Stanley in Millpark, with brands like Lunar, Guillotine and recently Black Coffee. Arts on Main in Maboneng is another creative hot spot sporting a variety of sustainable design talent.”

She has a few other recommendations, too. Add these to your Johannesburg travel itinerary now:


This brand celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and proudly produces all clothing in-house. It also provides sustainable employment to nine staff members.
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Under the direction of Eugenie Drakes, this brand operates using ethical trading principles and responsibly harvested materials, and is constantly exploring new ideas with Southern Africa’s established artists and artisans.
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Fundudzi by Craig Jacobs

Beneath the waters of lake Fundudzi, you can hear the ancestors drumming at night. The sacred lake, its mythologies and the stories passed down from tribal elder to tribal elder are ingrained in Fundudzi by Craig Jacobs, the ethical African label with the mantra “Clothing with a conscience”.
Visit site

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‘Clothing with a conscience’ is the mantra for Fundudzi by Craig Jacobs; Image by Aart Verrips

Loincloth & Ashes by Anisa Mpungwe

The Africa-based fashion brand for women who want modern, functional, relevant design with a Neo African point of view.
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The men’s apparel brand founded on the principles of high-quality, superior fit and innovative design, by Henni De Kock.
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The ethics-driven brand founded by Adhiambo Mula-Lauwers, which features versatile handcrafted sandals and footwear inspired by Africa.
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The womenswear label created by Marize Malan in 2006 with the design philosophy “to transform outwardly”. A strong supporter of raising the profile of South African design.
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One of the world’s most eminent sustainable brands, known for its rich organic prints, Osei-Duro was founded by designers Maryanne Mathias and Molly Keogh. They use traditional techniques to produce contemporary garments, housewares, accessories and baby lines.
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Naked Ape

From their studio in Johannesburg central, Naked Ape designs and crafts luxury bespoke garments for discerning individuals. In the latter part of 2014, Naked Ape’s brand extended to a flagship store in the trendy and fashionable Rosebank shopping district The Firs.
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Jo’burg label Babatunde boasts stockists and customers all over the globe; Image by Jurie Potgieter

Visit Johannesburg

Fashion is evolving. Being on board with this positive change is one thing, but supporting the companies at the heart of it (and getting your hands on the latest trends in the process) is where the fun really begins. And, we’re sorry Internet, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing all this in the flesh.

Join the movement. Visit Johannesburg.


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We are the Virgin Atlantic digital team in the USA, bringing you stories and views on our favourite destinations around the globe. Our aim is to make you feel like a local, by immersing you in stories on culture, the arts and of course… cuisine.

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