JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Sandals made from cow hide and used tires, paired with delicate cotton pinafores. The silhouette of an African woman peaks through the folds of an earth-toned skirt.
A generation of young black designers is putting South Africa (search) on the international fashion stage, creating traditional-influenced garments with a sharp urban edge that embody a new and vibrant post-apartheid culture.
"We are now suddenly emerging with a South African identity which never, never happened before," said Dion Chang, program manager for South African Fashion Week, which got underway on Thursday. "We don't quite know where we are headed, and we don't quite know where we are going to end up -- but boy are we having fun."
During close to half a century of white minority rule, labels imported from Europe and the United States defined fashion in South Africa.
"It also led to a really bad self image in South Africa, so nothing that was local was really appreciated," said Chang.
With the end of apartheid (search) a decade ago came a surge of patriotism and cultural pride. South Africans -- black and white -- began turning up at formal state functions in full African regalia.
But the style didn't appeal to the hip, young, Afro-chic generation that has emerged from the black townships to take leading political, business and cultural roles.
So the new designers modernized the look, using traditional colors, lines and materials to create wearable basics suitable for a city lifestyle. These designers are cutting their cloth in a different way, one that flatters the more rounded figure of an African woman.
"We use a basic A-line skirt, small at the waist and full at the hips; 80 percent of women are built like that," said Vanya Mangaliso, creative director of Sun Godd'ess (search), one of the most successful of South Africa's new design houses.
The label, which Mangaliso runs with her husband, Thando, began with a few skirts, which the couple sold out of the trunk of their car.
Four years later, their business employs more than 30 people and produces garments from start to finish at premises in one of Johannesburg's busiest shopping malls.
Their elegant evening gowns, with geometric lines referencing the traditional layering of a Xhosa skirt, have featured at celebrity weddings, local award ceremonies and boutiques from the United States to Japan.
Their design philosophy is about creating a different standard of beauty.
"Women come in all shapes and sizes," Mangaliso said. "Each and every one has a right to claim to be beautiful."
South African materials are already prized overseas, with mohair and beadwork from the country making it onto the catwalks of Donna Karan and Gianni Versace. Now its designers are beginning to find an international market for their creations, too.
Buyers from Britain, Germany, Switzerland and the United States were among those attending this year's Fashion Week.
Craig Native, whose urban street-styled denim is worn by U.S. rocker Lenny Kravitz, presented a collection that deliberately avoids what is stereotypically African. Instead, his clothes are inspired by South Africa's sports obsession.
Native paired shin guards with miniskirts in a line designed for Woolworths, the first South African department store to commission exclusive ranges from three top local designers. He took the controversial springbok emblem of the national rugby team, a sport long associated with white male chauvinism, and splashed it across a pink T-shirt.
"My inspiration comes from the people in the streets," Native said. "Today was a tribute to the forgotten, unsung heroes of South African sport."
Part of what makes South Africa's clothes unique on the continent is an established black urban culture dating back to the middle of last century.
Labels like Stoned Cherrie, founded by actress and TV personality Nkensani Maganyi, draw inspiration from the sophisticated glamour of 1950s Sophiatown. The Johannesburg township was a hotbed of creativity, producing some of the country's best known and most stylish writers, musicians, journalists and gangsters.
The label has also delved into the country's political past, putting the face of slain anti-apartheid icon Steve Biko on Ernesto "Che" Guevara-style T-shirts.
"Stone Cherrie was born out of a need to be part of this process which I think South Africans as a whole are going through, which is negotiating a new South African identity ... informed by our history and where we come from," said Maganyi, who is also making a clothing line for Woolworths.
South African Fashion Week, one of the highlights of the local design calendar, has evolved with the industry.
The show began in 1997 with 10 designers, most of them white, assembled under a marquee. It has now moved into the glitzy Sandton Convention Center with some 50 designers, about two-thirds of them "designers of color," Chang said.
The industry is, however, still at an embryonic stage. Most labels are microenterprises that struggle to acquire the financing and business skills they need to grow.
Chang is the first to admit that the quality of their garments is variable, and their ability to meet deadlines can leave much to be desired.
"But gosh we make up for that in bucket loads of innovation and creation," he said.