Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fashion Designer in Johannesburg

Henry Schickerling.

My  business was growing steadily as I got better known.
The South African Couture Syndicate's publicity helped as we had a PR company promoting the Syndicate as well as the individual designers.

We also did promotional shows for Intergold where the models wearing the gold jewelry wore clothes designed by members of the Couture Syndicate.

Two outfits made from South African Mohair for the Intergold Promotion.

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.  

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.

Emilio Pucci design.

As they could not spend the required amount with Pucci every season anymore 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 them.

Lake Como.

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 .

Student riots in South Africa.

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.

Rosebank Mall.

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.
Levinsons 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.
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. She 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 5:00 he would get into a bath and relax with a  drink and then we would sit and catch up and gossip. That was about the only time we overlapped. I remember some nights be woken up at 1:00 am by  Birgit Nilsson cursing and ranting as "Elektra" from the next bedroom -but I loved opera so it did not worry me .We had the same taste in music so that was a plus.

Collin lived in great luxury. He asked Gerhard 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.
That is how I met Cornelia .She saw the apartment in a magazine and came to the restaurant to enquire in what building it was as she wanted an old apartment as well. She came to look at the apartment the next day and we hit it off.

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-so her would also warn 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.

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