Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fashion Designer in Johannesburg

Henry Schickerling. Jeppe Street Studio.

After I returned from Europe my father helped me to open a studio on Jeppe Street in Johannesburg.
It was small by I could start working on a collection. I hired two Italian woman to help me and we prepared a small collection for the press. As luck would have it Margaret Smith was in South Africa from London Where she was the fashion representative for many South African fashion magazines.
To be introduced to the fashion press by her was great. After Pieter Borman's death five years before a  I was the first  Afrikaans male designer that worked in South Africa again so the Afrikaans  Press gave me a lot of coverage. 
Below are four outfits of my first collection in South Africa. These were published in Beeld.


The Women's Club of Springs invited the States President 's wife to attend a tea party and a fashions show. I was very honored that they asked me to show my clothes. The fashion show was a great success and soon after the Presidency called and I went with my model friend Georgina to meet Mrs. Diederichs in Pretoria. We took some outfits that she showed so interest in at the show .Georgina modeled them for her and  she asked me to design some clothes for her.

Me with one one the models at the Springs fashion show.

Georgina wearing  one of the gowns.

Here Mrs.Diederichs is wearing one of my outfits.. 


My  business was growing steadily as I got better known.Soon after Revlon sponsored the South African Couture Syndicate and I was asked to be one of ten founding designers .
We would do two fashions show a year. These fashion shows were big spectacles in the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg and no expense was spared.We had to work around a theme f a perfume or something Revlon was promoting.  People fought to get tickets and it became one of the most important events on the social diary of every fashion conscious woman in South Africa. Some time the designer felt that their clothes got second billing but it was very good exposure and I was very thankful to have this to promote my collection The South African Couture Syndicate employed  a PR company who promoted  the Syndicate as well as the individual designers.

South African Couture Fashion Show in the Carlton Hotel .Johannesburg.
These show were produced twice a year .



Indian inspired gown with Indian jewellery.

One of my customers up to today- and good friend - Susan Sterne.


The South African magazine asked me to design a gown for Barbara Barnard .Her husband Dr. Chris Barnard transplanted the first heart in the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town. 
She was going to be photographed in Spain by Lord Lichfield. She ended up on the cover of the Fair Lady  as well as on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in the USA.


Black Wool Collection with bright color accents.
After the South African Couture Syndicate Show these garments were photographed in my friend Gerhard Kokt's home...

Backstage at the Fashion Show in the Carlton Hotel.



The Gypsy Collection.


Bridal Gowns were fun to design. This one was photographed for Fair lady.


Three of my designs wore at the horse races at Turfontein.
It was to promote the launch of Pierre Cardin's  men's clothes to South Africa. 


Intergold asked some members of the South Africa Couture Syndicate to work with jewelers to work on designs to promote gold internationally  .



 This design was for the Mohair Board in South Africa.
We wanted to show that Mohair could be used for clothing as well.


Chiffon coat and dress borders in gold.


Things were going well and I had to employ more workers to help in the workroom.
I was negotiating with Levisons  the very upscale men's wear retail store to join them and work exclusively for them under my own name. They had two very exclusive women's wear boutiques  in Johannesburg City Center and in Sandton  City.

 I thought this would be great so that I could concentrate on designing-and do what I trained for - and leave the business and money management  to  somebody else.The South African Government was putting big restrictions on how much money could leave the country so companies that relayed on imports were having a tough time. Eileen Parker was the buyer for many years. They also had the exclusive rights to Emilio Pucci in South Africa. As Levinsons could not spend the required amount with the Pucci company every season ,they decided that they should employ me and I could design and manufacture high end fashions for them to sell in their boutiques. Before I joined Levisons, Eileen and I went to Lake Como in Italy and bought beautiful silks. I started working on the new collection for their two boutiques.
Derbers ,the Johannesburg furrier already had Eric Pugin -another SA Couture Syndicate designer working exclusively for them- and they were very successful in overcoming import restrictions in this way.
On the 16 of June 1976 I was at work just before 8:00 am .I just got upstairs when I heard a roar of human voices downstairs in the street. I looked out of the window and saw hundreds of Africans screaming- carrying sticks -marching up Jeppe Street opposite  the one way traffic.People were stuck in their cars and did not know what to do. As the rioters started running between the cars and  breaking some car lights -others  started kicking in store windows.The school kids in Soweto started rioting as well and all this killed business overnight in the city center of  Johannesburg .
The Carlton Center that was just opened for little more than 6 years before - became a white elephant.
People were scared to go in to the city and stayed in the suburbs and did shopping at the shopping centers in Sandton City and Hyde Park Corner as well as Rosebank.

Sandton City.

Eventually the Carlton Hotel also closed .Fashion was the last thing on people's minds as they thought rightly so- that this was the start of the end of South Africa as we knew it.
Levinson's were not spared and after  two years they broke my five year  contract and closed the women's division of the store.My father lost his business as well and could not help me anymore.
I was in shock and went to bed for a day and a night .I had not idea what to do.....
A old school friend of mine Christo Bloem was working in Market Research and I knew they used part time workers. His company  offered me a part time position where I had to interview 20 people a week They would give me the addresses and I had to go to their homes and interview them on products they used as well as what programs they watched on TV etc. This would give me the days free so that I could keep on with my fashion career during the day,When that job ended- I started working at CNA at night and over the weekend-as a cashier.
I called all my customers and told them I would fit them at their homes. The staff that was let go by Levinsons agreed to work from home. I would get in my car and drive to the pattern maker pick up the patterns ,cut the garments and take it to the dressmakers that would prepare it for fitting. After the garments were fitted I would take them back to be finished and deliver them to the customers after they were completed. It was a great service to my customers but it was hard work After 4:00 pm I would get the interviews ready and drive off to the neighborhoods and do my 5 interviews for the day. I could not go earlier as people were at work and I would waste time. At 4:00 pm I would catch the ones that did not work and be ready for the rest when they got home after work.Saturdays I would work full day, and try and do as many interviews as possible.
As looked back all this helped me - figuratively speaking -to get my foot into the door-and gave me the backbone to deal with New York when I got here.
One evening Collin Steyn called me from Potluck Restaurant and asked me to come by the restaurant later that evening.His cousin was sharing his beautiful Art Deco apartment that was the size of a house. It had  3 bedrooms 2 bathrooms 2 living rooms an enclosed porch and a big dining room and kitchen. His cousin was moving to Cape Town and he asked me if I would be interested in sharing the apartment. It meant that I could see my customers there as well as do some of the work on the enclosed porch. Collin worked at lunch time and then again  at night and I worked during the day. In the afternoon he would take a nap and around 6:0 0pm  he would leave for the restaurant That was about the only time we overlapped.

Collin lived in great luxury. He asked Gerhard Kokt  to redecorate the apartment  and it appeared in every interior magazine in South Africa when it was done. Collin had magnificent French antiques and Gerhard did an amazing job.I also saw customers here and the business  was getting back on track again.

On Sunday evenings Collin would invite 6 people and I would invite 6 people and we would have dinner parties that was catered by Potluck or Bougainvillea. Great conversation with dear friends and a lot of laughter.

I started to enjoy life again-

Collin  also very kindly offered me the cashier's position at their new Bougainvillea restaurant in Rosebank .I could give up the market research job and work 5 nights a week at the restaurant. We had a good time. It became hectic at certain hours but it was not work for me.I sat in a back space where nobody could see me -as most of my customers were also customers at the restaurant. At night I would look at the bookings and when I saw a customer on the list I would make sure to stay out of sight until they left. Bill Berry was the maitre'd there and were big friends,Bill was a great photographer and took many fashion pic for me. Every night the staff were fed before we opened and the chefs would make  food for us or Collin would try out a new dish -and we were the guinea pigs.....

Things were going better for me, and I got more work.
Joy Lewis of the South African Wool Board introduced me to Larry Gnesin .Larry was the sales director of a very big knitting factory in Kwazulu Natal .He was fed up with the collections they sent him to sell so he sent me down there to see what I could do. I designed a range of kids clothes for him as well as a line of women's leisure wear that we did very well with.
I would fly to Durban and the next morning they would pick me up and we would drive for about two into the homeland where this enormous factory was giving work to hundreds of Africans.I would spend a week there and put the collection into work .After a few weeks I would return again and put the final touched to it.I was restricted to whatever fabrics they made- and that was a challenge- but enjoyed working with them. It also helped to bulk up my savings account.

Things were going so well that I could move out of Collin's apartment .Working from there became a bit difficult and I found a two bedroom apartment in the same building two floors lower. Gerhard helped me to decorate it in a much simpler way- as I was on a strict budget.

I could now start seeing customers there and it became less stressful.As my overhead was not so big I started saving some money . My friends Dale and Lucia Pretorius were living in New York where Dale was the Director of SATOUR the South African Tourist Board in America. They have invited me before to visit and now the opportunity came that I could go to New York. I decided to go via Rome and on the way back I would stop over in London to see old friends there as well.
I was never that interested in America but wanted to work in Italy again. Although New York was a big city with many foreigners one felt accepted that never happened  in Europe. I always felt like a foreigner there .Once you opened your mouth the British knew you were not from there and in Europe it was very apparent as  one could not speak their language. I felt at home in New York from the beginning and as the time I spent here on holiday went on- I realized this is where I should be.I started talking to lawyers and fashion designers but it was was a catch 22 situation.To get a working permit one had to have a job offer and to get a job offer one had to have a working permit.After six weeks in New York I knew I will be back ,but had no idea how this would happen.I went back to South Africa with the knowledge that my future was to be in New York