Does the future of South Africa as a major force in the international fashion market lie primarily with its young black designers?

This was a question raised at the close of South Africa's recent Fashion Week - the fifth and most successful event of its type yet staged, and one in which most of the attention of the press from outside South Africa seemed focused on the talents of the new generation of black designers.

Among the autumn 2000 Fashion Week participants tipped as ready to go global on the basis of their most recent collections are Colleen Dubane, Craig Native and William Ntamo.

Of this trio, Ntamo is particularly eager to shake off the perception among overseas buyers that black designers are "only good at creating the kind of urban street wear which has its roots in hip-hop when something conceptual is the required look elsewhere."

Ntamo, this year's winner of the Elle South Africa New Designer award, bemoans such stereotyping but is optimistic that times will change as more black designers - and executives - gain key positions in the international fashion scene.

He cites as markers for such change the progress of Lawrence Steele through the Prada empire to the establishment of his own couture label in the USA, and in London the Savile Row success of Ozwald Boateng.

Colleen Dubane, however, sees money as the root of the problems faced by black designers, particularly those born in South Africa. "There will be no change until it becomes as easy for a black designer as a white to obtain funding both for training and in the trade itself," says Dubane. And as proof that such prejudice extends beyond South Africa he cites the recent confession of London-based designer Wale Adeyenni.

Adeyenni has gone on record with the statement that when setting up his label he frequently asked a white student friend to stand in during negotiations with fabric suppliers because they were reluctant to offer the same credit terms to a black as to a white customer.

"Such reluctance has apparently evaporated since Adeyenni started to acquire celebrities and showbiz clients such as former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham," says Dubane.

For Craig Native too, the celebrity client is the key to acquiring equal status in the international fashion business which, he believes, is still a white man's world. He claims his personal breakthrough followed a request to provide the wardrobe for rock star Lenny Kravitiz's latest international tour.

Are things better in the USA? Professor David Rice, founder of the ten year old Organisation of Black Designers, points to his association's 5,700 strong membership as proof that the situation is improving. But he admits that the OBD isn't solely concerned with fashion, and that members who are in the clothing business prefer to keep a low profile rather chase the limelight.

He does however offer an important historical precedent to cheer today's underrated black designers of all nationalities. In his researches he has unearthed the fact that the favourite designer of Lincoln's wife Mary was a former black slave by the name of Elizabeth Keckley.

By Sonia Roberts