South Africa's first Fashion Week will showcase a new breed of young, multi-ethnic designers who are revolutionising the country's fashion scene. Judith Watt reports
Whichever way you look at it, South Africa has always had an image problem. From slavery to genocide to apartheid to violent crime, there has been little to inspire international fashion interest - even if Malcolm McLaren did make it to Soweto. Until now. Not only does President Mandela present a decorative alternative to the grey suit, but the first South African Fashion Week is taking place from today in Johannesburg.

The event aims to showcase the talent of a number of young designers as well as the established names, but it remains to be seen whether the international fashion community will beat a path to South Africa's door. The local industry has a scandalous reputation for stealing anything new in the shops or on the ramps of Europe and reproducing it en masse. One designer confirmed this: at an interview with a major chain, when he asked what he would be designing, he was told not to worry. He'd be unpicking garments from London, Paris and Milan and merely reconstructing them.

Fashion in South Africa has been polarised between imitation international for rich white women and either Kente couture - the bright Nigerian cloths favoured by Winnie Mandela - or downmarket international for black customers. Now a distinct local style is emerging: S&M from the homelands, urban African rave chic, traditional meets new-age, khaki camp.

Three years ago, the London International School of Fashion opened in Johannesburg, and has since walked away with nearly every fashion accolade. It seeks to establish a fashion design culture in South Africa and has bursaries for disadvantaged black students. "Things are starting to happen," says its head, Shana Edelstien. "The African influence on black designers is developing into a sophisticated and unique style. There are still problems, with education, for example, but change is imminent."

Here we meet some of the young designers who have produced collections for fashion week, based on an "Africa" brief.

MICHAEL CONSTANTINOU, 23, graduated from the London International School of Fashion last year, and now works for designer house The Boys at Rosebank, Johannesburg, which has one of the most glitzy client lists in the country.

"In South Africa, there has not just been political isolation, there has been fashion deprivation, too. Now the culture has exploded, the clubbing is incredible, people are dressing up more and young designer fashion is really happening. Being gay, I've been part of a small, suppressed subculture that is now celebrating liberation.

"The brief was ethnic and cultural, so I wanted to look outside fashion for inspiration. Clothes for me are like architecture: you can change the body with clothes. I admire Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. I want to be where they are, taking fashion forward. I've always been fascinated by women's bodies. My designs are about form: there are so many different shapes within each culture, like the elongated neck or exaggerated hips. Whether people like it or not, I want their mouths to drop open.

JEREMY ARGUE forms the Blue Zoo design team with his partner, Shani Boerstra. Since opening their shop in Johannesburg eight years ago, they have been at the cutting edge of South African fashion. They will shortly open a shop in Cape Town.

"People think fashion happens in Cape Town, but Johannesburg is much more edgy, with a big nightlife, and it is the financial heart of the nation. For the past two years, 85 per cent of our clients have been advertising, film and media people: a mixed clientele, but for someone into the African tradition, the taste would be very Eurocentric.

"Shani is the real designer of the two of us, she's always had distinct handwriting, her collections fit in with whatever's happening. Rave was big here about two years ago, now our stuff is more street; a clean, modern, global look, but there's a real edge to her work. Lots of attitude.

"Nightlife is very OTT now, lots of glamour, lots of dressing up. It's a melting pot which looks at different cultures, so retro isn't a big thing for us. Our collection will be a total statement, not commercial, which is a great freedom. And I'm going to be taking my fetish-inspired collection out of the clubs and give it an airing. It's nice, lots of spiritual overtones, lots of construction."

CLAIRE O'KEEFE, 23, graduated from Leggat's, a Johannesburg fashion college, last year. She has a childrenswear line, Dreamchild, which she sells at a local market

"In South Africa, we are a bit naive. If we know that a garment will sell, we make it. If there is a European influence, you can sell large amounts cheaply. So, they keep making the same thing.

"But the change is coming; it's the young black kids who are working towards that. The South African fashion industry should wake up. Africa is becoming very chic and was the given theme, so within that I've tried to find a harmonious combination. I'm absolutely passionate about it.

"Designers here are very status conscious and haven't found their own voice. They're not looking to the growing market of incredible young black women who are searching for an identity in terms of fashion. Maybe we are going forward, but it's slow and students must not be too scared to push it over the edge. If we continue to do European influenced clothes, why would the buyers bother to come here?"

HENSLEY THEBE, 28, graduated from the London School of Fashion last year and is currently designing for private clients in Johannesburg

"I was brought up in Soweto, and 20 years ago I'd have either been a teacher or a gardener. Now I'm part of the new generation of designers. There aren't many black designers and this event is predominantly white, but then there are more white students at the colleges. Maybe black students don't go to good schools.

"I have done five outfits, inspired by the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe, with the bright, bold fabrics with which those women decorate their houses. My own style is very classical and I love the Italian look, but I have also designed a range of rap clothing for the Proud Brother label.

"I think the exposure will be very good, and we must be in contact with what's happening internationally - but we must design for our own environment and our own people."

INEELING KAZINDAMA, 24, comes from Botswana. Since graduating from Johannesburg's Kirsten Academy of fashion, she has one several awards and is a pioneer of the 'new' South African fashion

"The social and political changes haven't really been reflected yet in fashion, so I want to be the person to bring revolution into fashion. We've see it in sport, now it is our turn.

"Apartheid made people very conventional, it was the suit and tie. It's a free country now and people must feel free in their clothes. So many of the clothes worn here by black people are really West African, made from Kente cloth: I want to introduce something new and represent the Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, and Xhosa traditions.

"Clients include pop group MarcAlex and the King of Bafokeng, Lebone Molotlegi-Tswana. I design very close to my heart and it's great to see people realise they can wear fashionable clothes that come from them. My dream is to show in London, Paris or Milan. People get a very negative impression of South Africa and I'd like to change that."