Home » FEATURES » Protest on the Ramp: South African Designer Isabelle Lotter Joins #FeesMustFall Movement

Protest on the Ramp: South African Designer Isabelle Lotter Joins #FeesMustFall Movement


Students protest over planned increases in tuition fees in Stellenbosch (Photo Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

Students protest over planned increases in tuition fees in Stellenbosch (Photo Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

 

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Toronto, Canada

Isabelle Lotter of SIESisabelle echoed the cris de coeur from South African students at South Africa Fashion Week.  To the acclaim of the crowd – which ‘stood and erupted in cheers’– at her Johannesburg show, the South African designer joined her voice to the student struggle for lower university fees when she sent her models down the ramp holding “#FeesMustFall,” “#NationalShutdown” and “Education is our weapon” placards.

South African students took to the streets in late October, storming parliament, facing mass arrests and a brutal police crackdown, demanding that the government backtrack on its plans for an 11.5% increase in tuition fees.  In societies like South Africa, deeply divided along economic and political fault lines, an education can provide a hard-won opportunity to level the playing field and allow disenfranchised young people aspire to positive social and political change. As Nelson Mandela argued, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Protest on the ramp is hardly new, and sometimes even a means to reinforce the trappings of class, race and culture – consider Chanel’s feminist faux-test demanding that we “Make fashion not war,” and proclaiming “Féministe mais feminine,” (Feminist but Feminine).

 

Protest on the Ramps as part of Chanel's Spring/Summer 2015 show at Paris Fashion Week. (Photo Credit: Dominique Charriau/Wireimage)

Protest on the Ramps as part of Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2015 show at Paris Fashion Week. (Photo Credit: Dominique Charriau/Wireimage)

 

As Business of Fashion wrote in a 2014 editorial in which it explored whether fashion can be a credible platform for protest, “To treat social and political causes as little more than a marketing stunt undermines the meaning of a protest.”  But when rooted in a place of lived history or personal conviction, protest on the ramp can be thought-provoking and leave a lasting legacy that extends beyond the couture community.

Consider Vivienne Westwood, for whom protest is a both a medium and a message, and whose call to arms is “an art lover is a freedom fighter.”  Or designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, for whom the political was personal when he brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the runway during New York Fashion Week in September.

Vivienne Westwood Protest (Photo Credit: Agence France Presse)

Vivienne Westwood Protest (Photo Credit: Agence France Presse)

Kerby Jean Raymond (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

Kerby Jean-Raymond’s collection  (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

In the end, Jean-Raymond’s courageous collection provoked thought at New York Fashion Week, but also cost him a long-time buyer, with the original venue to host the show pulling out of its agreements, citing the inability to accommodate the large numbers of guests.

 

Kerby Jean-Raymond Collection (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

Kerby Jean-Raymond Collection (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

And when Isabelle Lotter sent her models strutting down the runway – wearing Doc Martens, because there are “no better shoes for protesting on the ramp” – South Africans responded cautiously on social media.  Cautiously, perhaps, because a photograph featuring a model holding a #FeesMustFall placard was rapidly identified as “sensitive media.”

“We must be doing something right!” tweeted Lotter.

 

Model Anaia Kambeya from Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo Credit: Ruper de Beer)

Model Anaia Kambeya from Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo Credit: Ruper de Beer)

 

In an interview with Ramp1885, Lotter explains that she’s only encountered very minimal backlash.  “On both occasions, the public reaction has erupted to support my actual motivation,” she writes.

Lotter cites blogger Aisha Baker, who writes that the designer’s engagement was respectful.  “Some of us have to continue working and can’t be on the ground with the rest so we do what we can in our workplace,” writes Baker.  “She [Lotter] managed to raise awareness in an industry who is not particularly concerned with social issues.”

But although Lotter’s statement made a splash with her audience in Johannesburg and with the online blogging set, the suspect absence of robust traditional media coverage hints that the designer might have touched a nerve.  Although her protest was front page news in The Times, earning a mention as one of Marie-Claire South Africa’s “favourite moments from SAFW,” and shout-outs in Elle South Africa and Zalebs, Lotter only received timid analysis.

 

Photo Credit: Elle Magazine South Africa (via Twitter)

Photo Credit: Elle Magazine South Africa (via Twitter)

 

“I don’t know if they are scared to add their voices and stand up for this movement,” Lotter tells Ramp1885.  “There have been one or two other blog posts and lots of images that have been shared on social media.  There hasn’t really been anything as in depth as your interview.”

Fashion can be, after all, a force for revolt and revolution – but it can also entrench the status quo (read: post-World War II Christian Dior).  With couture being out of reach for many in South Africa’s deeply divided society, media silence could well be an indication that Lotter is having a disruptive impact on couture elites and the rigid order of things.

But for those who did speak up on social media – beauty queens and artists in the public eye – the message was clearly powerful.

Adebisi Sowemimo, the Nigerian model who walked the runway with the “#FeesMustFall” placard, took to Instagram, writing, “Sies Isabelle in support of fees must fall. Standing up for what is right. We support the students #feesmustfall #support #safw.”

 

Adebisi Sowemimo of Nigeria (Photo Credit: Ruper de Beer)

Adebisi Sowemimo of Nigeria (Photo Credit: Ruper de Beer)

 

Miss Commonwealth South Africa 2014 Palesa Entle took to Instagram, writing, “Fashion has ALWAYS been able to reflect the state that we are in. #SiesIssabel nailed it by reflecting the current crisis facing the youth of SA.”

Environmentalist and Miss Earth 2014 Tamerin Jardine tweeted, “Then @siesisabelle did this #FeesMustFall what a powerful message, fashion behind our students.”

“This issue matters to me because I mentor a lot of interns,” says Lotter.  “One of them, Zumae Bothma, has recently become my assistant designer. She is currently completing her final year at the University of Pretoria and has been affected by these protests.”

 

Model Lemohang Molobi of South Africa (Photo Credit: Rupert de Beer)

Model Lemohang Molobi of South Africa (Photo Credit: Rupert de Beer)

 

“Education is key to transforming our nation into the powerhouse that, I feel, South Africa is capable of becoming,” Lotter continues.  “The runway is my loudspeaker for ideas whether they be creative, political or social. I don’t want to become the (insert cause here) designer, but I will use it as a platform to support causes that I feel passionate about.”

In the end, Isabelle Lotter’s impact cannot be solely captured by a handful of tweets and Intagram pictures, but rather the measure by which she has joined her voice to a movement of young people intent on rectifying an injustice.

 

South African Protests (Photo Credit: Gallo Images/ Beeld Felix Dlangamandla)

South African Protests (Photo Credit: Gallo Images/ Beeld Felix Dlangamandla)

 

As Nigerian actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde posted on Instagram, “This is how pop culture should stand with social causes.  Sies Isabelle in support of fees must fall. Standing up for what is right.”

 

*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a writer, professional do-gooder, world traveler, polemicist and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

Here are more global fashion stories

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>