The Cherry on Top
It is often said that lightning doesn’t strike twice, and it’s even rarer for it to happen thrice. This is especially true when lightning is a metaphor for success in the world of fashion. But success seems to follow the Durban-based designer Amanda Laird Cherry. Widely considered as one of South Africa’s most established, most respected fashion designers, her career spans nearly four decades and has become a staple at every fashion week in South Africa.
But the success didn’t come immediately. Laird Cherry graduated in 1983 with a diploma in clothing design and, like so many aspiring designers, started her career in the studios of two boutique businesses, honing her skills and developing her craft before joining the internationally renowned, locally produced surf- and sportswear brand Instinct. Laird Cherry’s vision certainly “clicked” with the Instinct brand, and she was soon appointed the Design Director She spearheaded the brand’s design for nearly a decade before deciding to strike out on her own.
Durban was a veritable melting pot of cutting edge fashion in the mid- to late 1990s, so it was certainly a serendipitous for Laird Cherry to start her eponymous label in 1996. She soon started supplying the famed Durban Designer Emporium, followed by a variety of other boutiques throughout South Africa, establishing a signature look for the brand while rapidly gaining a highly favourable reputation. It was in this time that Laird Cherry became a regular feature of the now defunct Durban Designer Collection (DDC), growing her label – as well as her menswear label, ALC – into a famed brand.
However, the lifeblood of any clothing brand is a strong retail presence. Yet, considering the unattainably high cost of retail space and supporting infrastructure, having a dedicated retail outlet often remains a mere pipedream for a fashion designer. Step in Laird Cherry and Neil Roake, with a vision of creating a space where established designers could affordably showcase and sell their clothing while giving new designers a platform to break into the rag trade. The very aptly named The Space started as a single, standalone store in Durban at the turn of the millennium. Today, almost two decades and 13 stores later, The Space and Space MAN has grown into a much-loved, go-to outlet for cutting-edge designer fashion.
Laird Cherry’s achievements speak volumes about her vision, passion and commitment. A regular at SA Fashion Week, her work has been presented at multiple Design Indaba expos over the years, and has even graced the catwalks of London Fashion Week. Her work has featured in every fashion publication imaginable, and she’s become a fashion journalist favourite, as evidenced by her multiple finalist runs for Fair Lady magazine’s coveted Catherine Award. And in 2006, she was awarded the Marie Claire (South Africa) Prix D’excellence de la Mode for Best Designer.
While drama and fine arts are her first loves, she found that clothing gives her a very real, albeit different means of expression. However, in an interview with ifashion, Laird Cherry admits that she has always had a love for the cloth. “My father used to tease me that I’d say hello to people and I’d be rubbing the top of their arm and feeling the fabric of whatever they were wearing,” she says.
Old habits die hard, and the type and patteron of the fabric certainly plays a significant role in her designs, which include ladies’ wear under the Amanda Laird Cherry label, and menswear under the ALC Man label. “I have always loved cottons, linen and fine wool. I do use synthetics but the handle has to be good, supple and soft. So I am very particular about fabric, I always have been. I can look through a hundred fabrics. Maybe 50 of them I just won’t like, 20 of them are a maybe and 30 of them I’d love. I’m very particular about prints, texture and content.”
This translates into the physical garments, specifically its shapes and cuts, which are renowned for being roomy and leisurely, and clearly inspired by the need
for comfort in the often harsh South African climate – and especially the humidity of her hometown, Durban. There isn’t a rigid distinction between her ladies’ and her menswear designs, and it beautifully appeals to various cultures as well.
There are many reasons why Laird Cherry has become as successful, loved and respected as she is. Yes, her designs are beautiful. And yes, there is masterful craftsmanship in her work. But more than this, it’s the vision and motivation that supports each design and garment. As explained on the homepage for The Space, Laird Cherry is one of a small handful of South African designers who has historically fused the development of her clothes with that of the country. Her collections over the past three decades have presented a different kind of reconciliation process, one that unites out intersecting histories into a collective present.
As she explained in an interview with SA Fashion Handbook, in celebration of the brand’s 20th anniversary, “Those who think of clothing exclusively in terms of this or next season’s fashion are missing the point a little. The fabrics and the cuts we wear tell us about our society.” It’s this collective present, the fusing of personal and political stories, told with cloth and thread, that has struck a chord with her fans and given her staying power.
One also cannot dismiss Laird Cherry’s commitment to promoting and sustaining jobs within the South African industry, and how she works with local crafters and skills-building organisations – such as Sinakathemba and the Hillcrest Aids Centre – to produce accessories. In fact, she is quite adamant that South African consumers – specifically consumers of “fast fashion” – should rethink this approach and shift their thinking to locally produced garments.
Asked about how to convince such consumers to change their thinking, Laird Cherry believes the solution lies in encouraging people to find their own style that works for their lifestyle and body, and to not just rely on what is the current trend. She also believes that education on the conditions in factories and combatting the mistreatment of factory workers around the world is crucial – especially how this “cheap” clothing feeds, and is the result of, these practices. As she explains in SA Fashion Handbook: “From a South African, and a personal brand perspective, I believe we need to speak about how buying clothing made in South Africa supports jobs locally. We need to translate this into the reality that it supports moms and dads in keeping households going, kids at school, and makes further education a possibility.”
Now based in the United States, albeit not permanently, Laird Cherry is still actively in control of her brand and her business, thanks to modern communication technology and a close-knit, trusted team that she can delegate to with ease. But critically, the brand’s integrity and design leadership remains intact, and proudly South African.