Four young fashion designers are causing a sensation in Soweto. Twenty years after the end of the apartheid system, its fashion scene is inspiring not just Johannesburg but all of South Africa
Every day begins with a fashion show for Sibu Sithole. Forty-one metal armbands jangle on his wrists, nine large copper rings adorn his fingers, and the flesh tunnels in his ears have expanded his earlobes by several centimeters. The 30-year-old is both an artist and a work of art. In fact, he has “I AM ART” tattooed on his arm. The catwalk is a dusty street, but Sithole doesn’t care. Each morning he parades down his own private runway, and the people at the roadside gawp unabashedly at the piercings in his face and the holes in his jeans, from which pink leggings peek. Sithole enjoys the stares, celebrates the effect of his appearance and stares right back. Reaching his place of work, he vanishes through an iron gate leading to a courtyard and the building behind, where he unlocks the creaky, weatherbeaten wooden door to the tiny studio belonging to the Smarteez.
Sithole and three other young designers are currently causing a sensation in South Africa’s fashion market. Soweto – Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – in particular, is experiencing a rebirth. It used to be associated mainly with crime and anti-apartheid protests, but has recently become a source of inspiration for art, music and fashion.
It is only a quarter of a century since black South Africans won their struggle against the apartheid system, and Soweto’s history provides a fertile soil from which new cultural currents can spring. “Soweto’s potential lies in its people,” says Sithole. For decades, Soweto was isolated from mainstream culture, and its inhabitants had no choice but to develop their own particular style. Sithole says the people of Soweto are still a feisty lot, adding: “and we’re proud of what we have achieved.”
He goes on to say that most people in Soweto are poor and often don’t know what they will live on from one week to the next. There’s very little work to be had, and the pay is poor, he continues. “There are only two paths open to us: Either we turn to crime or we make use of our creative talents.” Seven years ago Sibu Sithole, Lethabo Tsatsinyane, Floyd Manotoana und Teekay Makwale chose the latter path. They began designing frock coats for men and sewing colorful suits that were actually far too dressy for the dusty township streets. “Are you gay, or what?” the neighbors would shout after them, or sometimes “Satanists!” when they paraded through the townships in their extravagantly tailored jackets, through neighborhoods where people tended to wear cheap clothes. The four young men took these expressions of hostility as a compliment. Their mode of dress was their way of rebelling, and they decided to call themselves the Smarteez – “chocolate-brown on the inside, brightly colored on the outside.”
The townships came into being in the 1930s as a conglomeration of cheap houses for black workers who were employed by white bosses in the factories, households and mines of nearby Johannesburg. “Most of the people here have nothing with which to express themselves,” says Lethabo Tsatsinyane, 30, “apart from their own person and their appearance.” Tsatsinyane is wearing a red suit, a hat and a tie pin, and sporting orange socks. He is on his way to the fabric market in a suburb of Johannesburg. Situated on the Witwatersrand escarpment, the city is one of Africa’s most important economic centers – and economic progress is now reaching Soweto. Johannesburg is also growing. New settlements are going up at its edges so fast that Tsatsinyane can’t even tell you all of their names, nor has he ever visited them. The population of Soweto has doubled in the last ten years, and now stands at 1.3 million, roughly half of the entire population of Johannesburg. Only a small share of the city’s economic output comes from Soweto, but it has a growing middle class. In South Africa, being middle class means having regular work, owning a television and perhaps even owning a car.
But most Sowetans still ride to work in crowded, rusty minibuses. Over the last couple of years, large billboards have sprung up along the roads into the city. Cosmetics manufacturers advertise products that soften your skin, and banks offer cheap loans. These billboards are symptoms of the modest economic upturn that is taking place, but also indicate that most of it is financed by credit.
Tsatsinyane looks out of the car window. Here, on the edge of Soweto, a fan park was built in 2010 for watching the soccer World Cup games. The viewing screen is long gone but the benches and the flower beds remain. “We didn’t have parks here before,” he says, “but people no longer have to work six or seven days a week. Leisure is a new luxury.” Already – and it’s only early afternoon – there are men working out in the park, enthusiastically lifting weights.
People no longer have to work seven days a week. Leisure is a new luxury
When we arrive at the market in Johannesburg, Tsatsinyane asks a vendor to show him some fabrics. A young airline employee has commissioned a custom-made, black cocktail dress. The vendor heaves bolt after bolt of fabric onto the counter. “Too shiny … not stretchy enough … too much of a blue-black”: Tsatsinyane is not finding what he’s looking for. He walks into another shop called Feast of Fabrics, which has bolts of cloth stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see. “My customers often show me models from a magazine and want their dresses to be made out of exactly the same fabric. That makes things difficult.” The fabric vendor knows Tsatsinyane and immediately brings him the right cloth. The designer buys half a meter more than he actually needs. In the past, he often forgot to factor in the extra material that sewing fabric from a pattern required, and had to return to the market for more, which would cost him an hour each way in the minibus. “I was learning by doing back then,” he says, “today we’re professionals.” He will earn 1500 rand – roughly 100 euros – on the dress.
All four men studied design and tailoring at Johannesburg’s colleges of fashion. A regular fashion center has sprung up downtown, with numerous designer studios, fashion schools, fabric stores and markets. The contrast to Soweto could hardly be starker, with fancy cars driving past, high-rise towers scraping the sky and luxury hotels rolling out their red carpets.
For the Smarteez, Johannesburg isn’t an inspiring place. “In Soweto, people’s desire for fashion is far more urgent than in the wealthy districts,” says Tsatsinyane. Rich people can show off their villas, their sports cars and their jewelry, he says, but “people in Soweto only have their appearance.” As a young man, he used to buy cheap T-shirts, cut them up, gather up the sleeves and sew buttons on. His parents advised him to get a job at a bank, but he only lasted there for two months before deciding to go into fashion design.
Intergenerational conflict accompanies the Smarteez all the time. Sibu Sithole’s father is a traditional Zulu, and he feels ashamed when his son comes to visit dressed in extravagant clothes. And then there’s the way he speaks! It upsets him that his son no longer speaks proper Zulu but JNB-Zulu, an informal version peppered with anglicisms.
Actually, the designer speaks eleven languages. When he gets together with a couple of friends, all three of them often communicate in different languages. That’s how it is in Soweto, a part of the city where all of the country’s ethnic groups are represented and coexist. All except for one, that is, because only blacks live in Soweto. Whites and blacks may share the same rights in South Africa these days, but seldom do they share the same spheres of existence. Only a small number of Sowetans have a higher education, and many spend their whole lives in Soweto.
It’s afternoon, and we’re at the market in Jabulani, the most popular neighborhood in Soweto. The Smarteez are busy sorting through designs by other artists. Tsatsinyane tries on brightly colored hats, Sithole joins a dozen women looking at gold rings. The quartet doesn’t attract much attention for their style of dress here. Women wear colorful skirts or dress in androgynous Parisian chic, men sport leather jackets, fitted shirts and elaborately made shoes. “We four have always dressed differently from other people,” says Sithole. He himself started out dyeing his hair blond and then became a goth. Makwale was a Rastafarian who loved to lie under trees and read books. Manotoana was a biker dressed in leather and leggings, whereas Tsatsinyane has always been a dandy. “We were freaks.” But despite their different lifestyles and ways of dressing, they shared a common sense of being different, which was easier to handle as a group.
It wasn’t long before others started wanting to be different, too. Young folk started rummaging through their grandparents’ things, mixing old and new, cutting up and sewing back together articles of clothing that had gone out of style – or commissioned new gear from the Smarteez. Suddenly everyone started calling themselves a Smartee. “People used to be afraid of being different,” says Manotoana, “but suddenly it’s the thing to be.” For a long time, there was no street culture in Soweto; culture was a luxury. “We boosted people’s confidence and developed a subculture,” he adds, “not just for Soweto but for all of South Africa.”
People used to be afraid of being different, but suddenly it’s the thing to be
Although the Smarteez style has been copied not just by other artists, but also by large corporations, the Smarteez themselves have not made the leap from South Africa’s fashion shows to the international stage. They are far too busy sewing and altering simple clothing to find time to improve their income in that way. Nevertheless, they have achieved what their parents would never have thought possible: They earn a living from their art. The lights are still on in the studio; Tsatsinyane is attending to a late-night customer, Ntsiki Jetha, the airline employee. She tries on her new black cocktail dress. It fits perfectly, but Tsatsinyane isn’t satisfied quite yet. He gathers up the material and pins a piece of tulle to the hem. Measuring tape in hand, he ponders out loud whether he shouldn’t employ another seamstress so that he can spend less time producing and more time designing clothes himself. His customer interrupts him with an enthusiastic: “Wow,” as she admires herself in the mirror, softly caressing the fabric. “This is great quality, and a very unique design,” she says, adding: “That’s what all of us want to be – unique.
Adresses you’ll like
The Soweto Hotel
Smack in the middle of Soweto, this hotel is a perfect point of departure for tours of the township.
This popular eatery is only a short distance from the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Mandela House.
Soweto Art & Craft Fair
Held at the Soweto Theatre, the fair takes place every first Saturday of the month.
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