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(Reuters) - South Africa's slowly dying textile industry could receive a shot in the arm from a burgeoning fashion market in Africa's largest economy that is looking for home-grown fabric and stitching for its internationally known designers.
The 8th Africa Fashion week in Johannesburg this week brought together the glamour and chaos of countless fashion shows and the hopes of thousands of jobless textile workers living in poverty.
The textile industry for decades had been a mainstay of Africa's biggest economy until about 20 years ago when cheaper imports from Asia began saturating the market, with factories closing down.
"There have been about 160,000 jobs lost in the industry since 1996, the height of employment in the industry. However, the rate of job losses appears to be slowing down," said South African Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) researcher Simon Eppel.
The number of workers brought back to work from an African fashion success is still small but workers are hoping that as African designers gain in global stature, more jobs will return.
Thula Sindi, an established South African designer showing his line at fashion week, uses co-operatives of skilled seamstresses in the factory areas of Johannesburg to produce many pieces in his line.
"The good thing about co-ops is that you are outsourcing to smaller factories in the city. We work according to demand. It's one way to create and save jobs because the advantage is being able to deliver clothes on time," Sindi said.
To encourage more of these tie-ups, a trade expo was launched concurrently with the fashion week to bring designers, retailers and manufacturers together.
"In the rest of the world, high-end designers with their own businesses contribute hugely to the GDP. In South Africa we don't have a developed base yet for these designers to have such a great share," said Grant Blackbeard, general manager of African Fashion International.
The swimwear and lingerie line from Durban-based Dax Martin had an ocean theme produced by local craftsmen. His works have been used in global beauty contests and sold internationally.
Blackbeard said designers branching out globally should think about producing locally.
"We have to look at the starting point which is fabric. With a lot of our mills being put out of business from the cheaper Chinese fabrics coming in, we need to strengthen our mills so we don't have to purchase our raw materials from abroad."
Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Paul Casciato