(I wrote this orignally for JC Report) If you count the countries birth from the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa is still in its teens. And like many adolescents South Africa (and its fashion industry) is often confused and contradictory. It also has a penchant for dressing up and showing off: whether it is the showy glam of blinged up Joburg, the deceptively laidback hipsterdom of Cape Town or the explosion of street style coming out of Townships like Soweto.
As the country’s new fashion industry has found its feet the breakthrough local street brands over the last decade have often been concerned with establishing a truly South African identity. The only problem is that with 11 different national languages and cities that feel continents apart in culture, no one is entirely sure what that identity is or should be. SA fashion as a result is an amalgamation of local heritage (both African and European), re-interpreted international trends and has a fierce desire to prove itself.
Undoubtedly the influence of township culture is one of the unique (and most interesting) aspects of South African style and many labels claim township roots (although largely target a growing middleclass consumer base). The provocatively titled Darkie label is one example of a brand built on mixing local urban style with international trends. The brand was founded by Pretoria born Themba Mngomezulu, whose only previous fashion experience was watching his mother run a successful second hand clothes business from their township home. Founded back in 2002 and now based in Cape Town, the label has achieved widespread success across both geographical and racial divides by its mischievous tinkering with taboo subjects and some very wearable designs. Hoodies come emblazoned with the names of townships such as Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, t-shirts play with icons such as Nelson Mandela’s head (afrocomb sticking from his hair) even Michael Jackson gets a look in with last year’s “MJ forma Darkie” t-shirts. The label has national distribution via the YDE chain, international distribution in Germany and the Netherlands and has just opened its own store in Cape Town.
Also representative of the new spirit of optimism (tempered with the edgy reality of living in one of the crime capitals of the world) are Thesis . Based in an area of Soweto, nicknamed Baghdad (for its level of gun crime) the young label is one of a number that are actually being born and sold in the townships. Similar to Darkie’s route, the trio of friends that started the label has limited fashion training but a gift for creating a brand that tinkers with local iconography. In this case the themes are localized around Soweto with t-shirts featuring the painted cooling towers that have become the Eiffel tower of the township, or minibus taxis that transport millions of Sowetans on a daily basis. The entrepenurial zeal of the guys that run the label has led them to open their own store in Soweto (proudly based in a shack) and have appeared on the ramps at Joburg Fashion Week.
Earthquake, created by Joburg based John Sithole, is a new brand that matches Darkie’s attitude but swaps provocative slogans for fashionista edge. John Sithole, at 24 is only really starting out under his own steam. His big break came from winning a local reality TV show (not unlike Project Runway) but he’s put the time in the hard way sweating it out at fashion school and working for the progressive Strangelove (an independent Joburg label). John’s style is anchored in denim and sportswear but brings in more tailored elements and borrows international trends to create often unlikely hybrids. Earthquake still has a way to go, but represents a new breed of designer that retains a local urban edge but is less concerned with shouting out an obviously African identity and more about creatively borrowing from different styles and cultures.
South African street style is likely to increasingly appear on the international radar in the run up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. With brands gaining in confidence and maturity SA style is well positioned to go global with the attention the country’s vibrant street culture is likely to receive.