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Collecting African Couture – Clive Rundle

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With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, through its Collecting Cultures scheme, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has acquired a set of garments created by Clive Rundle, one of South Africa’s most important designers.

The garments, part of a collection entitled AFRIDESIA, were originally presented at the New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2003. They now join the Museum’s Fashioning Africa collection which documents aspects of post-1960 African fashion identities.

In February 2018 the designer made a visit to London to attend the opening of the inaugural Commonwealth Fashion Exchange design exhibition at Buckingham Palace. I was fortunate to meet Clive Rundle during his stay and to learn more about his practice and the pieces acquired by Brighton Museum.

The three items – a leather jacket, a pair of leather trousers and a silk chiffon blouse – are typical of Clive’s practice, which has been described as ‘constructivist’. Rather than being motivated by a desire for glamour or luxury, Clive is interested in technical construction. As he noted in conversation, his starting point tends not to be illustrations but technical drawings. The choice of materials and finish comes later.

Clive Rundle garments are complex structures. The jacket that the Museum has acquired, for example, is spiral cut, making the fitting of the numerous pocket flaps that cover it extremely challenging, especially given the insertion of a vertical zip at its reverse. In addition to the complex structural nature of the garment, the materials used are taken through many intricate processes, for example cutting, hand-dying, hand-printing and elaborate embellishment. As such each piece is unique and not easily reproduced.

Clive Rundle clothes are worn by businesswomen seeking to make a statement across South Africa and further afield. They have also featured in the work of visual and performance artist Steven Cohen, whom Rundle describes as the closest that any person has come to being his muse. Given the complex and intricate nature of Clive Rundle garments and the sense of spectacle they convey, I asked the designer whether he has considered making pieces for the gallery rather than for the catwalk. On the contrary, he said, it was the discipline of making garments to be worn on the body that motivated him.

Like many prominent Africa-based designers, Clive Rundle’s work is well-known on the continent but less familiar to fashion followers in Europe and North America. Through initiatives like Fashioning Africa, we hope that this situation will change in the future.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art