A 4-part series analysis into Johannesburg’s fashion district, based on immigrants within the manufacturing sector of the industry. This is Part 1: The District Today.
One can compare Johannesburg’s Fashion District as a vintage patchwork denim jacket: with a precious history, it still holds importance in modern-day. The patchwork represents the diversity among those who work in the industry, the majority of whom are African immigrants. Assimilation has occurred in all aspects of the fashion production chain, although unlike evolving fashion trends, the transformations have left the industry in tatters.
Covering almost 30 blocks, the Johannesburg Fashion District is multi-cultural space within the city. It is populated by over one-thousand businesses in all aspects of the fashion supply chain: sourcing, manufacturing and retail. It is estimated that a mere 23% of the buildings are considered to be in good condition. Fashion, often thought of as a glamorous industry of frivolity, in-fact forms a prominent and resilient part of the inner city.
The area lies between End, Jeppe, Market and Von Welligh streets. Hundreds of people head to work here, filling the buildings and streets with productivity in an effort to earn a living. Nothing about it is glamorous: it is about business, not style that one might find in the nearby Maboneng Precinct or Braamfontein. Walking the streets, you’ll see people cooking and selling food on the pavements and the cars manning the many one-ways in what has become an urban jungle that is navigated by people who are determined to get to the places they need to be.
The people along the way are all friendly enough, with businesses ranging from fabric stores to CMT’s (cut make trim manufacturers or small factories) and retailers. There is a clear difference between the African-style clothing on offer and the Asian imports based on Western design and fashion.
The manufacturers can be found inside the floors of buildings or in a corner of the retail store. You can easily spot them, sitting at a small desk, surrounded by scissors, a sewing machine and fabric. They supply either their own stores, clients running small businesses and rarely a name-brand company.
Wondering into one of the buildings, the dilapidation is clear to see. The lifts have not been upgraded and there is still marble lining the walls. A lady sits idly at the reception, which is grand with its high ceilings, asking no questions upon entry. Stopping at each of the nine floors, you discover an enclave of fashion manufacturing. Several spaces still remain empty, with locked gates and the glass storefronts sealed off with newspapers dating back to the 1990s. Others are secluded, housing the manufacturers of leather, decor items, clothing and furniture.
Navigating through the areas involve guesswork with connections to someone on the inside being a valuable asset as it becomes apparent that prodding questions are not welcomed.