There’s an exciting buzz inside SA Fashion Week’s sun-drenched offices, with phones ringing and people leafing through photographs of models and fashion show programmes. I ask what the minimalist white offices are used for the rest of the year when it’s not fashion week, and I’m told that it pretty much takes the other fifty-one weeks of the year to bring a single week of fashion to life. It’s just over a week to go until curtain up, and Dion is able to take a breather and chat to Mambaonline.
Style consultant, fashionista and a South African fashion icon himself, Dion Chang began his career studying fashion at Natal Technikon. He won a scholarship to complete his studies in Paris, where he worked as a make-up artist and later became a stylist. Returning to SA, Dion garnered his first job as a fashion editor and in his decade as a fashion journalist he’s been editor and written for major fashion publications including Elle South Africa and international glossies in Australia, Germany, India and South America.
Always committed to the local fashion industry, Dion is the chairman of the national judging panel for the Smirnoff International Fashion Awards. He’s something of a local celebrity, and no doubt an authority on the world of fashion and styling.
“We’ve got some pretty boys in South Africa.”
This year, for the first time, Dion is the program director of SA Fashion Week. Now in its seventh year, the event brings together our country’s hottest designers (not to mention our hottest models) in a celebration of local style and flavour. As an internationally-recognised style guru he’s exceptionally down-to-earth, maintaining a candid perspective on the fashion world with a keen sense of humour.
Why do you feel that something like SA Fashion Week is important?
All our best stuff, just like our fruit, gets shipped out the country but nothing gets left here. And politically, fabulous frocks are not necessarily on everyone’s agenda. Fashion Week focuses very heavily on new talent, especially black talent. On another level it’s creating an indigenous style in South Africa. People are not so gobsmacked about international labels any more. There’s a lot of pride in local stuff.
You’ve worked in fashion capitals like Paris and London. Are they as exciting and trendsetting as they’re mythologised to be?
They are a good benchmark of what we’re doing. The more I work internationally the more I discover that what they’re doing there is as good as what we’re doing here. They have more resources so we have to work extra hard. South Africans are hard workers and it shows. What’s nice about South Africa is it’s like the Wild West here. We make our own rules and break our own rules as we go.
Are South African men becoming more adventurous with regard to what they wear?
It’s getting there very slowly. There is a larger selection of menswear coming through than before.
And are men in general – gay and straight – becoming more conscious of their looks than ever?
Definitely. They’ve just coined a new phase because of David Beckham called ‘metrosexual’. Whether they’re gay or straight there’s more attention to what they wear. They have fewer hang-ups. It’s a stereotype that black men are more stylish that white men and it’s completely true (He laughs). It’s starting to rub off slowly!
What are the essential “must-haves” for the upcoming season?
Coming up for summer gay boys are going to have the whole military thing. A lot of vests, sleeveless T’s, cargo pants, lots and lots of sneakers and trainers, but retro-style more than cross trainers. When we launched Elle in 1996 there was a big trend in military. That trend has come back three times in the last eight years. It’s all about cycles.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when buying clothes?
Not really experimenting with different looks. Fashion is really just a major session of dress-up.
But does one have to spend a fortune to look good?
Absolutely not. Rule number one – money doesn’t buy you style. I have a suit that people always comment on, that I bought for R150 at a Hospice flea market. It’s how you put it together. My worst thing is head-to-toe label dressing. That really doesn’t impress me at all.
How do you rate the standard of fashion in mainstream South African stores?
A slow improvement. A lot are following in the footsteps of the UK and employing designers to design a small range. A lot of independent designer groups are mushrooming up, especially in Cape Town.
Who are some of South Africa’s most stylish – and least stylish – people?
Let me stick to the most stylish – I’ll be diplomatic (a grin). One of the most stylish people for me is Tandiswa, the lead singer of Bongo Maffin. It’s a very affected style. And Thebe, who used to be the brand manager of Nike.
And how about you? As a fashion authority and style icon do you feel pressure to dress up wherever you go?
Kind of, but I enjoy dressing up so it’s not really a major effort for me. You kind of feel a little bit of pressure. There’s an art to dressing down as there is to dressing up. I don’t dress for people. I dress for myself.
Having worked in diverse areas of fashion, which is your personal favourite – magazines, shows or design?
The show is like an adrenaline rush. It’s got to be an intense experience, almost an art happening. Twenty minutes and it’s over. But magazines and writing about fashion are still my first love. As a columnist you can fob your opinions on the public!
What about the stereotype that the industry is dominated by gay talent?
Not that all gay people are creative but it does sort of come with the territory. Generally gay people are open to new ideas. I think the stereotype is there because in the fashion industry people are more accepting so it’s not such a big deal, and more people tend to be out.
Who are the hottest menswear designers in SA right now?
Icuba is probably one of the hottest men’s labels around. Also Craig Fraser and the name on everybody’s lips at the moment, Register Seven. For a bit of township fab kind of vibe there’s Ephymol, the closing show of Fashion Week.
And our hottest male models?
If one model does well they get overused very quickly. We’ve got some pretty boys in South Africa, some really gorgeous-looking guys. It’s about a very individual thing, not all just ‘Muscle Marys’ any more, a real cross section.
So male models don’t have to be “perfect” any more?
It’s not so intimidating, like flawless perfection. Quite sexy is an imperfection, a crooked smile, an individual imperfection. That’s a lot sexier than a cardboard cut-out.
What’s your favourite item in your personal wardrobe? Can we assume it’s the R150 Hospice suit?
Shoes! I’m a bit of a shoe fanatic. I just bought a pair this morning quickly. You can tell a person’s personality, where they come from and their sexual orientation from their shoes. And it works!
Well, I can tell…
And I believe him. When you’re done examining your shoes to see what they say about you, get down to SA Fashion Week, happening at the Sandton Convention Centre from 27 to 30 August.
For more details visit www.safashionweek.co.za.