Lest Fashion Week leave you feeling jaded (about the superficiality of the industry, and the inanity of the clothing and the persons therein), allow me to offer an antidote of sorts: NOT × Chris Saunders, an exhibition currently showing at Wallplay that fuses fashion, photography, sculpture and video to explore the complex cultural underpinnings of style—South African style, in particular.
The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between New York designer Jenny Lai, of experimental womenswear brand NOT, and South African photographer Chris Saunders, whose documentation of local countercultures and street-style has garnered international attention.
Intrigued by Saunders’ images, Lai traveled to South Africa, meeting many of the country’s emergent young innovators. Over a period of two months, she worked extensively with four of them—accessories designer Dennis Chuene, vintage clothier Dr. Pachanga, menswear designer Floyd Avenue, and costumer and puppet maker Macdonald Mfolo—to reinterpret a selection of NOT garments.
Saunders documented this intensive collaboration, ably assisted by his sometime muse, performance artist Manthe Ribane (formerly of dance troupe Vintage Cru, and now on tour with Die Antwoord), in various locations across the country: from the metropolitan centers of Johannesburg and Cape Town, to the townships of Orange Farm and Soweto.
This idiosyncratic seven-person exchange of skills and ideas comes together in an exhibition that probes issues of context and identity—asking, In a world of increasing globalization, what is locality and how does it reflect diversity?
B+B sat down with Lai and Saunders to talk culture, clothes, and color lines.
JL: That’s how I found out about him. Seeing these photographs of different young people who are part of subcultures. I was instinctively drawn towards their style. There are elements that are recognizable because of course they are very influenced by the west and the European influence in their history, but at the same time they’ve done it in a completely fresh way, unlike what I was seeing in New York or anywhere else. I felt like I had to really go there and find out where was this language coming from.
CS: And with my work, it’s all about trying to create the cultural link behind where fashion and music and dance come from, and how they’re intrinsically linked to South African expression, and African expression. It’s the way stories and histories have always been relayed: the way that you look, the way that you speak, the way that you dance.
JL: And I have a ready-to-wear line but I also design for performers.
CS: So that’s where Jenny and I connected, on the Pantsula stuff—I’ve done a lot of work documenting Pantsula dance, which is a form originating in Johannesburg.
CS: I wanted to tell these stories—the different things we thought were unique in South African fashion and culture—and these four, or five, people we collaborated with represented those things very well. If you go through each of them, it’s a nice way of talking about five very different corners or things that are happening in Johannesburg and Cape Town: the way people are making things and creating says a lot about the country.
JL: For me, it’s very two-fold. One aspect was discovering: where did their style come from, what was unique about their material and their process, how do they create. And on the other hand, I was very interested in bringing my brand there to explore what happens to style when it’s dislocated. Does it belong to where it originated? Or is there something in it that can be understood by anyone around the world? I see them adopting styles that are from other cultures and completely making it their own, so what happens with my own designs, when I bring it somewhere else, when it’s remade by another person, or reinterpreted in different materials and processes? I think that tension is what shows in the final garment because I think it does become something new in itself.
CS: And for me, from a documentary side, it was like how do you tell the story of a creative person? And the best way to tell the story of that process is to actually make something together. I was getting a bit jaded about the idea of street fashion in Johannesburg and what it represented. When I first started shooting The Smarteez [a DIY fashion collective / style subculture from Soweto], it hadn’t been done and I needed to tell the story. The divide is slowly changing and it’s not fast enough and it takes guys like this that are very brave and extraordinary to really bridge gaps. It’s become a lot more surface now, I find. For me, it was trying to tell that story, and not just the story of cool people standing on corners.
JL: That’s what I really like about Chris. He’s so enthusiastic about the people and the cultures that he shoots, and he wants to really understand it—not just shoot the surface of it.
CS: South Africa’s a very strange place and until the perception of violent crime and corruption is eradicated in society…people are scarred, you know? If you’re from a middle class background and you’re going into the city and you’ve been affected by crime, it limits you from exploring your own environment and cultures. And that’s where the current segregation happens. I wouldn’t say it’s just racial, it’s also classist. People become over-secure, so they lock themselves up or they leave. That’s where my work all started: before I went anywhere else in the world, I knew I needed to be able to talk about South Africa in a real way; to know different perspectives and different things about culture, and to have that evident in my work.
JL: I was surprised by where I was living. In Johannesburg, I was staying in a studio in Maboneng. It’s one of the new, regenerative neighborhoods around the world. I felt like I was in Brooklyn or something, it was very hipster.
JL: I am definitely aware that every single designer has taken African inspiration for some collection or another. It’s very surface-level: they’re just adopting things that are visually appealing. I felt like this project was very different because I was working on the same table top, sourcing from the same stores as these designers. We were really working together. It’s a difficult process: trying to match your expectations of what you want to create together, and what that would mean for the two of us.
CS: It was a very equal skill transferral on both sides, and that collaborative effort is so important.
CS: It’s always been seen as the place where you give something. Like, oh I must donate money to Africa. [South Africa]’s a functioning society, you know. But it does need the business. Unfortunately, South Africans still idolize the west. So, the project will be shown in South Africa in March of next year at the Museum of African Design in Maboneng, but it was better for the project that we started it here and brought it back to South Africa—for it to have more credibility. That’s just the way it is. South Africa is very, very far from the world, and people seem to appreciate things more when they’ve been somewhere else, even though it’s about their own culture.
JL: But for us, that’s how we came into this. We started the project because of our own interest, solely with the hope of sharing these stories and being open to the possibility of what could happen. I just love learning how people dress and why. For me, it’s almost spiritual. I have to go to different places to see that, experience that.