A perfect fit
South African designer and entrepreneur Gavin Rajah, who has designed for Nelson Mandela, on how his Indian heritage has influenced his stylish creations.
Preity Zinta was so elegant... I think she would wear the clothes and not let the clothes wear her, which is so often the case when you dress celebrity clients.
From styling himself into a force to reckon with in the South African fashion industry, judging America's Next Top Model on TV, being appointed a UNICEF Ambassador, to being named as one of the top 40 most influential leaders in his country, Gavin Rajah has come a long way indeed. The Indian-ness doesn't just end with his name or the fact that his family, which has been in South Africa for four generations, originally hails from Jaipur. The Indian aesthetics is reflected in his work too, helping him choose colours and textures for his innately feminine collections.
The designer/entrepreneur who has dressed the likes of Naomi Campbell, Beyonce, Jodie Kidd, Tina Turner, Paris Hilton, Celine Dion, Cameron Diaz, was also instrumental in laying the ramp, quite literally, for the Cape Town Fashion Week. In this exclusive interview, Gavin Rajah talks about his different facets as a designer, philanthropist and entrepreneur. Excerpts…
In what way has your Indian connection influenced your designs?
I never trained as a fashion designer. I studied law and then ran a business selling overruns from my dad's clothing manufacturing company. However I decided I wanted something more creative and thought I would try my hand at clothing design and retail. My Indian connection has been integral to how I design. - the use of colour, texture and motif is very important to me together with the approach of using clothing as an art form. I think the fluid and often very dramatic sense of embellishment one gains from traditional cultural Indian dress has influenced my work, maybe not overtly but certainly from an aesthetic.
How would you describe your style?
Our clothes are always ultra feminine with unusual detailing and cut. Overall, our distinctive qualities have always been superb craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail. My work is very difficult to copy due to the complex construction; so it's become a strong USP.
What are your design inspirations?
I am inspired by different things: art, music, theatre, music, travel and interactions with other creative individuals. I tend to be influenced by a particular element each season and I think that it always brings a different slant to my collections. I research the inspiration completely and then go on to source fabrics. Quite often I also collaborate with graphic or fine artists or other people who have the skills required to produce special pieces for me. When I design a collection, it's completely down to the shoes and accessories. I always go through a lengthy sampling process to ensure perfect fit and silhouette.
What made you start the Cape Town Fashion Week?
I was passionate about shaping the future of my career and business. So when I did that, it was my primary objective. We have since sold it and it has grown to an extent but I think that it needs more growth to take it to another level of being a serious player in the international fashion week circuit.
When and why did you start Gavin Rajah Concepts, the event management company?
I started it in tandem with my fashion business 10 years ago as I had also studied marketing as a postgraduate option to law just in case I did not crack the fashion arena. I am really proud of the fashion weeks we have created and the numerous ones we have consulted to internationally. The one event that we have created, which I am really proud of, is POSI+IVE which is the largest Pan African collaboration of art, music and fashion which raises funds for HIV/AIDS.
You are with the UNICEF and champion the cause of underprivileged children. Why did you choose to support this cause?
I am a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and I think our children are the ones that will shape the future. It is very important that we nurture young minds and teach them to be responsible adults.
How was it to have been personally chosen by Nelson Mandela to work on a limited edition of clothing to mark the occasion of his 90th birthday celebration in London?
I have a long relationship with him and have always supported the projects that he is involved in as well as the foundation that he has for children. I just could not refuse doing and I felt it was more than just a worthy cause; it went towards celebrating his legacy and his role in furthering human rights for people all over the world.
FinWeek listed you as one of the top 40 most influential leaders in South Africa. How does it feel to be recognised?
It's quite strange for me actually as I do what I do; the fact that it has helped my country is a huge affirmation for all the work I do.
On the personal front, what else remains to be achieved?
I would love to have a retail presence in India, work more in furthering child rights in other vulnerable areas and expand our brand into creating boutique luxury hotels!
Your opinion on the Indian fashion industry...
I love the passion that people in the Indian fashion industry have; the irreverent use of colour and the amazing traditional craft skills in embroidery, beading and embellishment. I think, given the right opportunities, they can be out there with the best!
Some people you would like to dress or have enjoyed designing for...
Each one is individual and unique. I loved working with Celine Dion, Queen Rania and Sting; they were amazing individuals and were kind and gentle people.
An Indian you would like to dress…
Nita Ambani. On the star front, Preity Zinta was so elegant and I loved her whole look. So, I think she would wear the clothes and not let the clothes wear her, which is so often the case when you dress celebrity clients.
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