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1 July 2006

TWO of SA’s greatest fashion assets will hit Paris simultaneously next month, on the same runway. One is Gavin Rajah, the first South African ever invited to show at Paris Fashion Week. The other is the ostrich, whose hide features in Rajah’s new range and is making an impact on the international glamour scene. Gavin has used ostrich skin in previous collections and calls it the ‘cashmere of exotic hides’. In his new collection, to be shown in Paris, he’s created bags, jewellery and swimwear in ostrich skin and has used the leather in metallic shades, for the first time in the history of the skin.

He is immensely pleased to have been chosen to participate in Paris Fashion Week. In accordance with the Federation Française de la Couture, strict criteria must be met by any designer participating in the event. The federation designates the title of haute couture to deserving designers only. This entitlement belongs to those designers distinguishable for their superior quality and inventiveness, says Gavin. Currently, there are only 12 haute couturiers in the world (Jean-Paul Gaultier was recently made one).

Gavin explains the process with the kind of sparkle in his eye that makes one believe that he’ll get there one day. Completely self-taught in the fashion department, Gavin studied law at university where he became the in-house fashion consultant on what to wear to formal dances. He then endured his articles but soon after finishing, had what he calls an ‘Oprah moment’ when a friend said he should pursue what makes him happy in life.

He hasn’t looked back. What the law degree did give him was a sense of earnestness. He approached the fashion industry like any other cut-throat business, setting the PR wheels in motion at the same time as cranking up the sewing machine. He says that because he ‘never paid his dues’ by slogging his way through fashion school, he was always seen as an outsider as he worked his way up the ladder.

‘After showing at Paris Fashion Week, Rajah will receive international recognition. The opportunities and exposure that this will create for local design talent are endless and will place South African fashion on the global map,’ says a press release issued on his behalf and he’s taking the humble ostrich into the limelight with him.

A lot of the fashion world’s ostrich skin comes from SA. The biggest ostrich leather processor, Klein Karoo’s Wim van Rooyen, says that globally ostrich hide has become increasingly fashionable. Today, the bird’s leather is a R400m-a-year industry with 95% sold internationally. Based in Oudtshoorn, Klein Karoo supplies major European brands like Hermes, Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Chanel. A handbag in the distinctive spotted hide from one of these elite chains retails for around €6 000 - €9 000. You can buy virtually the same product here, minus the trademarks, for about R3 000 - R4 000 says Van Rooyen.

The big ostrich leather processors in SA currently produce between 250 000 and 300 000 skins a year, he says. Klein Karoo is the largest and has been processing skins since 1972. The company offers a range of 400 different colour options but can create any shade a client desires. So, Gavin Rajah and his ostrich skin will be thrust into the spotlight in the land of uber-style, far from the southern states of the US where cowboys have been donning pointy ostrich skin boots for years.

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