Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, photographer Chris Saunders and I went to Joburg’s CBD with the Smarteez, the Soweto DIY fashion phenomenon, plus a few armed guards
Photography Chris Saunders
Fix Up, Look Smart
A new generation in South Africa’s townships is challenging post-apartheid stereotypes with a brightly coloured burst of DIY fashion exuberance. Here, four young designers from Soweto take Rod Stanley into downtown Johannesburg and explain why they feel the next struggle for freedom is all in the mind
Through a heavy turnstile off a downtown Johannesburg street, we walk into a dingy store stocking uniforms, sports kits and work-boots. Like seemingly every other shop in South Africa ahead of the World Cup, a stand of vuvuzela stadium trumpets dominates its entrance. Sibu, one of the young designers who are our guides today, pushes past them to chat with a shop assistant, who produces a ring of keys, unlocks a heavy steel gate at the side of the shop and motions us down the crumbling concrete steps into the darkness.
At the bottom, fluorescent lights click on, and we struggle to catch our breath against the hideously dank air (“There’s probably asbestos in here,” someone mutters). Another steel security cage, another set of keys, and we sweep into a room piled to the ceiling with endless shelves of boots, all caked with a thick layer of dust; they can’t have seen the light of day in decades. Sibu rushes over, picks up a particularly shit-kicking pair, and laughs – “I call these ‘end-of-the-month’ boots. Because at the end of the month, people haven’t been paid and get real pissed off! I like to take these steeltoed ones and file off the outer layer of material, so the metal shines through…”
Sibu is an imposing presence – a tall young man from Johannesburg’s satellite ‘township’ Soweto, he is wearing tight homemade black trousers with three initials drip-painted across his bum, metres of heavy chains and fistfuls of silver jewellery. A floor-length homemade red cape hangs over his half-shaven, half-dreaded hair, and staccato sentences boom from within his hood at a hundred miles an hour: “I want to do my next fashion show using these boots, with all the dust still on them! My last show in Soweto was both a funeral and a wedding! And my birthday! Which is on Valentine’s Day!”
My last show in Soweto was both a funeral and a wedding! And my birthday! Which is on Valentine’s Day!
Nine of us pile into a creaking lift that shudders up four floors, disgorging us spluttering into another storeroom. Endless racks of vintage suits, uniforms and military jackets lie before us, all coated in the same thick layer of dust that points to the building’s pre-apartheid history, when this was an affluent department store serving the wealthy white ruling class. Today, you can buy a never-worn suit here for less than five pounds, although you might want to get it dry cleaned.
“This building is a hundred years old!” gabbles Sibu, perhaps exaggerating, although a faded framed picture of the shop in its heyday suggests at least the 1930s. “I was looking about here once, when the woman behind the counter said: ‘I can see you like old stuff. You should look upstairs.’ I was the first person to shop here, though others know about it now. But we got all the good stuff! We used to leave here with two binliners of clothes each.”
His “we” refers to the Smarteez, a collective of Soweto youth with a passion for outlandish, vibrantly coloured DIY fashion, created with material from local fabric shops, unwanted vintage gear, and just about anything else they can lay their hands on. With him today are Kepi, in jumpsuit, bowtie and pink beret; Thabo, all skinny green trousers, purple jacket and Joker-esque grin; and Floyd, notably topping off his ensemble with a corduroy cap and lady’s handbag. Something of a celebrity phenomenon in South Africa since they burst on to the scene a year or so ago, the four core members have agreed to take us on a tour of the shops they use to source their material.
The wholesalers we are in now is on a busy street cutting through Johannesburg’s Central Business District. There are more high-rise buildings here than in any other part of Africa, and it was once a “whites only” area. Now, the reverse is (almost) true; after the end of apartheid in 1994, the white middle-class and their businesses withdrew to the more secure northern suburbs, as crime rates rocketed and disadvantaged black families moved downtown.
Entire office blocks were converted into towers of residential accommodation, and in the late 90s it was often described as a “no-go zone”, notorious for staggering levels of violent crime. Whites still rarely venture inside today. After 16 years of freedom, South Africa still has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with a scarcely believable 50,000 murders a year.
Today, downtown Johannesburg is somewhat scuffed but with bustling streetlife, handpainted signs stretching up to the sky, and shops springing up in the gaps between other stores. The safety situation has improved somewhat, especially as the government tries to clean up the city ahead of this year’s World Cup, with the help of former New York mayor Rudolph Giulani. Today there is a buzzing, friendly atmosphere, with small crowds turning out to watch us shooting and filming on the streets. Nevertheless, we have retained the services of two armed guards from the aptly named Bad Boyz private security company – many of whom are ex-criminals, treated with wary respect by the area’s muggers and gangsters who wouldn’t think twice about relieving us of every last piece of equipment at gunpoint. Louis Theroux once made a documentary about Bad Boyz, a fact of which they seem quite proud.
Just as downtown Johannesburg’s fortunes have changed over time, so has the outlook of the city’s black youth. The Smarteez see themselves as part of a new generation, who eschew the politics and activism of the struggle in favour of hedonism and self-expression.
Kepi talks about how some commentators have compared the Smarteez to the Harajuku kids of Japan, but how that misses the point – “The big difference is that we don’t buy the clothes, we make them.”
Talk to others in South Africa about the Smarteez, and one can encounter a degree of resentment, even snobbery, at their sudden status. One (white) magazine editor says that she has never featured them, and never will, “because it’s not enough just that they’re young, and cool, and black, and from Soweto.” Perhaps not, but they are keen to explain that they are more than just cool kids; this is a business.
Each has their own clothing line, which they make and sell through their network of friends, parties, and the clothing and music stores in Soweto, where many neighbourhoods still lack electricity and running water. Most have trained to some degree in fashion, and are keen to detail how they sewed their shirt themselves (Floyd), have two assistants and their own machines (Thabo), or will be a millionaire by the age of 35 (Sibu). Kepi has heard that they have inspired others to follow them in smaller townships around the country, where 10-year-old kids now customise their clothes and dance round a ringing cell phone. Mili, a local journalist who accompanied us on the trip, says, “Just because they’re from Soweto doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy life and have a culture.” This attitude seems to have riled certain sectors of society, those who might perhaps find it preferable for township youth to fit an angry, impoverished stereotype.
“I think that our parents grew up with apartheid and struggled,” says Kepi thoughtfully as we leave another shop, the owner delivering his young assistant a vicious clip round the ear as we depart.
“We do know of the struggle that our parents had, in order to free the majority from apartheid. But now that has gone – so for us, it has been like a clean slate. Now it is up to us to fight against self-oppression… that mindset of having to conform. That is the battle we are fighting now.”
The sun is beginning to dip behind the highrises, and as the road recedes into dusk, it’s time for us to leave; there are no streetlights here. As we turn to walk up the road, two elderly women pass by with huge burning braziers balanced on their heads. “To be honest, I really don’t give a fuck,” Sibu says. “I’ve never voted and I probably never will. I was born into the free world. And some people accuse me of taking my freedom for granted. But to that I say fuck you! It’s my freedom to take for granted.”
Special thanks to Sandiso Ngubane and Milisuthando Bongela
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, July 2010