2019 IDA Fashion Design of the Year: Gold in Haute Couture / Women
IDA 2019 winners – Q&A interview
Gavin Rajah Atelier
Cleopatra in Africa
Photo: Aart Verrips
Styling: Louw Kotze
This collection was previewed at the CNI Luxury Conference. It was inspired by Handel's opera "Giulio Cesare" and in particular the aria 'V'adoro pupille' - an aria where Cleopatra in disguise tries to seduces Julius Caesar. The collection shows Cleopatra in an African setting and as a women in control, manipulative and privilege. The collection uses, silk, double-faced wool, latex, heavy silk and hand sewn ostrich fronds and bubblewrap. The collection underpins Cleopatra as an icon of oppression in Africa as opposed to the heroic beauty she is portrayed in, in historical narrative.
Gavin Rajah is South African designer and entrepreneur based out of Cape Town. He works in creating hand-crafted luxury that employs women from vulnerable communities. He is passionate about economic and social transformation of those that are vulnerable. His work is collected by discerning clients around the world who embrace his aesthetic and ethos in design. His work features intricate construction and embellishment. Gavin is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and uses his work in fashion to profile child related causes in the world.
What do you see as the strengths of your winning project and what does this award mean to you personally?
I think the work is about showcasing the creative industries of my country, the talents of my studio and is testament to our pursuit for excellence in our craft. Our strengths lie in us telling a story that puts forward a strong aesthetic and tells a story at the same time.
What impact has winning this IDA Award had on your career/opportunities?
I think we have possibly gained more visibility around our work and it has increased our following on social media platforms from around the world. I think winning this adds gravitas to one's brand.
What was most important for you when planning the project and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
I think planning this was quite interesting it - as it was a collection that I previewed during the Conde Nast Luxury Conference - it was daunting considering the number of fashion luminaries in the audience. Challenges were presenting a collection in Africa without playing into stereotype and or making a collection that pandered to what people expected an African designer to do.
What is your guiding design principle?
Meticulous attention to detail and refined crafstmanship.
Where do you get motivation and inspiration from for your work?
Books, travel and music!
How/when did you discover that you wanted to work in design?
I think after going to theatre and seeing costumes at shows - I loved the idea of clothing being escapist. I have not training in fashion - I had started out studying law. Everything I know about fashion I have learnt over the years
Is there something [a building/logo/product] that you wished you had designed?
I wish I had designed the Grande Palais in Paris.......it's just stupendous in scale!
How do you think your own culture and environment has shaped your personal and professional creative vision?
I think being in South Africa and being a person of colour has had a great impact on my work. I think based on the African continent people expect your work to be all our traditional costume, pattern and motifs - yet this is not the case in the Western World. The West looks at Africa in quite a patronising manner - they love a 'pity porn' type narrative and for me I am so against this! I am so against entrenching these expectations of others in the fashion world! I think being alienated and also faced with apartheid has made me resilient but also very sensitive to any forms of prejudice.
Tell us about a project which has been your greatest achievement?
I think being asked to show during the couture in Paris in 2006 by the then President of the French Federation of Fashion, Didier Grumbach.
Which fashion designer do you most admire and why?
I have always liked the work of Ralph Rucci - an American designer and one of the very first to show during the couture as well. He is work is just so beautiful. The construction, quality and sense of restraint is unsurpassed. He has a very loyal following of discerning women.
How do you feel fashion design has evolved over the past years and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I think we are faced with a new landscape in this pandemic. I think clients are looking at brands - looking at what they stand for and what they contribute to the world. A strong sense of ethics and responsibilty for fellow citizens and the environment is now key. The ostentatious excess will be reigned in!
What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities in your career/industry now?
I think being agile enough to react to consumers needs and being propelled into the 4th Industrial Revolution which is a digital age is challenging. The opportunities lie in tapping into new markets, refining one's product and innovating.
How do you decide to take on certain projects?
I always decide if is going to teach me new things and enhance our brand and secondly, is the project financially viable to sustain our business.
What would be your dream design project?
To re-look at Chanel as a brand. It seems to be a bit out at sea at the moment.
What’s your creative process and what creative software do you use?
I do not use any software. I am a bit old school and prefer to create things on a dummy and then translate it into flat patterns.
What kind of questions do you ask before beginning a design project? What piece of information is of utmost value?
I think what are the end objectives and what do we want achieve in creating this piece of work. Also does the project sit well with our ethos and of crucial importance who are we working for and what do they stand for?
What kind of culture or structure needs to exist to foster successful team collaboration?
I believe in leading from the bottom up - I think empowering your team to make informed decisions is paramount. I think listening and being inclusive in hearing opinions is important. It shows that you value your team members.
Tell us about a time when a client disliked your work?
I learnt that if you do not have chemistry or a rapport with a client then nothing you do will satisfy them. One must have implicit trust - without this I am not sure you can create productively. I had a client that was also not happy as a person and this translated into her trying to find fault with everything.
How do you deal with feedback?
I love feedback especially constructive feedback - I am constantly seeking to improve our work ethic.
What are you working on, what is in the pipeline for you?
At the moment I am working on mentoring young designers - fostering creative partnerships for them and giving them the practical experience that tertiary institutions don't give them. I am extending my collection to homeware which I have been working on and building for the last 5 years!
View the Winning Entry by Gavin Rajah