Fashion Cities Africa Part Two
Fashion Cities Africa Part One celebrated the style scene in Lagos and Nairobi through the contributions of those who create and wear it. Now Part Two covers two other creatively dynamic and design-influential African cities – Casablanca and Johannesburg. As the editor of the book Fashion Cities Africa, Eritrean-born Hannah Azieb Pool, says: “The book is not an academic text or an exhibition catalogue, nor is it a definitive guide to African fashion. But what I hope it provides is a glorious snapshot of very different fashion landscapes. I invite you to meet the maverick designers of Casablanca,” whose creations include exquisite Caftan Couture by Zhor Reis, drawing on Moroccan craft traditions. We will also delve into the politically conscious style of post-Apartheid South Africa.
Pool aims to correct misconceptions about African fashion, providing key context for contemporary African style scenes, capturing their depth and breadth. As Helen Mears, Brighton Museum’s Keeper of World Art, where the first exhibition of African fashion in Britain has just ended, says: “We want to reveal the diversity that exists across the continent, and show that wax print is only part of the story of African fashion.” Again, my aim, as in Part One of Fashion Cities Africa, is to let the people who design and wear their fashion speak for themselves.
“Casablanca’s fashion scene is very calm, people are stylish and the culture is rich” says stylist and blogger Louis Philippe de Gagoue. He has influenced street-style with his own look, which is eclectic, to say the least. “I mix up babouche slippers, Berber and Tuareg jewellery with clothes from other cultures.” Architect Zineb Andress Arraki adds: “I wear my grandmother’s caftans with tattoos and short hair. My style is considered punk, but to me it’s about creating a future heritage.”
Journalist Mouna Belgrini elucidates: “Morocco is like a sponge. We absorb from Europe, Africa and the Arab world while retaining our own roots. It’s always been like that. You can choose which culture you identify with and express that through the way you dress.” Morocco has been at the crossroads of trade roots and empires for thousands of years, endowing Casablanca, its main port city and commercial hub, with a unique cosmopolitan design landscape. In the early 20th century, the French Protectorate introduced a European style of urbanism to Casablanca, which included European fashion influences, adopted by the then A-listers. In marched the Nationalist movement, which as a sign of resistance, encouraged traditional Moroccan dress such as the djellaba (hooded robe) and the hayk (wrapper). This tendency was fuelled by Hassan II after independence in 1956, whose dictatorship demanded ‘modest’ conservative dress.
By the 1960’s the first generation of fashion designers emerged, who appreciated that women leading modern lives could not and would not wear the large, thick, heavy traditional robes that restricted their movement, and were far too warm as well.
Award-winning and internationally acknowledged artist Hassan Hajjaj, who zaps between Morocco and London, started out as a stylist in the 1990s. His images reflect his multi-cultural lifestyle, as well as challenging Western misconceptions about the conservatism of North African Arab society. He photographs veiled women, sometimes in sunglasses or winking at you, the viewer, as they ride their Harley Davidsons through the medina, wearing djellabas covered with brand names like LV (Louis Vuitton, of course!)
Hajjaj has encouraged Amine Bendriouich, who has launched his own label ABCB, standing for Amine Bendriouich Couture & Bullshit, characterised by a souk meets street-wear look. He started out as part of a collective making T-shirts. One design took the popular slang word hmar, meaning ‘jackass’, which went viral, becoming the most popular T-shirt in the Arab world. “My work questions identity. I’m African, Arab, Berber, Tuareg and Moroccan. I address historical and contemporary Moroccan society, but also relate on a universal level.” In 2014, he went into the Sahara and sought out local craftswomen, who make carpets and embroideries. From this immersion, he created figure-hugging black dresses covered with imperfect embroidery in vivid, psychedelic colours. He says: “I was taking a stand against the hegemony of the caftan, which had become self-exoticised.”
Nevertheless, caftan chic is the most lucrative and sizeable sector of the Moroccan fashion market. They are no longer universally worn, but almost everyone wears them to special occasions such as weddings and Eid celebrations. Traditionally, one caftan went through many hands specialising in various crafts, such as tarz (embroidery) and renda (needle lace). “I switched to caftans to cater to the demand” says Zineb Jaundy, “and because of my wanderlust appreciation of embroideries and handcrafts from different cultures. Today my collections are produced between Morocco and India and combine these two colourful, spicy worlds.”
Nowadays there are lighter, more fitted and altogether sexier takes on the caftan. “Today there are no rules. You can wear caftans how you like, have fun with them and feel modern,” says Zhor Rais, for three decades one of Morocco’s most admired caftan designers. Together with her daughters Chadia and Aida, they created House of Caftan in 2012, offering a slim, feminine silhouette, most of the caftans elaborately embellished with traditional forms of craftsmanship. Rais says: “Each city is known for different skills, from the buttons and embroideries to belts and slippers.” At her fashion shows she honours their makers, bringing them onto the stage.
“Designing a caftan is a conversation between the body and the clothes… it’s an osmosis,” adds designer Zineb Joundy. But, stirring this somewhat familiar, even complacent scenario up a bit, former architect and now designer and jeweller Amina Agueznay declares: “In Morocco you have the caftan designers and the contemporary designers. They live in two different worlds.” For her, she says: “The sky is the limit. I often work on a large-scale and create installations for the body… one (fashion) collection was about burning plastic and another was made entirely of paper.” Her jewellery doesn’t look ‘ethnic’, though she deconstructs Berber pieces, and does workshops around the country to help craftspeople update their skills, so that they can sell to new markets. “Morocco is a goldmine for crafts. We can’t let this precious heritage die.”
“There’s always been a relationship between race, politics and fashion and nowhere is this truer than in Joburg,” says Milisuthando Bongela, who blogs under the name Miss Milli B. “It existed in Soweto, it existed in Alexandra, because of the relationship between oppression, fashion, black people and aesthetics.” The juxtaposition of style, politics and identity is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago and it’s dynamic – few cities crackle with the political and design lightning as Joburg. Bongela continues: “Joburg was the cauldron of the struggle, this is where most of the action went down, this was the home of black consciousness. That’s the politics of living in South Africa, you can’t do anything without considering – Joburg is the New York of Africa – you come to find your dreams. There’s a certain level of ambition which is your entry-ticket to the city, which shows in how people dress.”
The Joburg fashion scene reflects the city’s diversity and urgency. Apartheid may ostensibly be over, but the mood of the city is still sometimes one about to simmer over. “It’s sad, but it’s great for creativity. There’s something that is alluring, creatively speaking about it,” says Nkensani Nkosi, founder of lifestyle label Stoned Cherrie. “It’s hot here, as in it’s boiling, there’s always something going on.” There’s a gold-rush, frontier atmosphere. In fact, Johannesburg or ‘e Goli’ means ‘place of gold’ in Zulu. Everything is up for grabs, and rules are easily broken.
There are two rival fashion weeks, giving designers a great platform and which have played a key role in highlighting the energy of the scene. Lucilla Booyzen, founder and director of South African Fashion Week (SAFW), says: “Joburg is a vibrant city, there’s a love of glamour, but also a willingness to experiment, to mix things up; a boldness that shines whether people are wearing high street or Hermès.” Yolanda Sangweni, founder of Afripop, says: “My style is super funky, stolen from my mom and aunties, super African, and non-conforming.” But actor and activist Standive Kooroge tells a more global tale: “My style is a reflection of my life experiences and travel – a traditional Zulu influence and a vintage Western tapestry – I’m an African global citizen.” Bongani Madondo, writer and curator, echoes this: “My style is a combination of vintage, 1950’s/60’s jazz salons in Harlem and Sophiatown and the liberating madness of the punk-rock aesthetic. Afro-dandy meets AfroPunkz Downtown.”
Every part of Joburg has its own vibe and style. “I was born in Soweto with freckles and ginger red hair. This made me different. Joburg is my city, my city is painted on my face” says Felipe Mazibuko, writer and stylist. And the city is full of attitude, much dressier with a lot more vibrant lifestyle bling than its more conservative cousins, Cape Town and Durban. “Joburg is the only city in South Africa that’s really glamorous and very cosmopolitan, with a show-offiness in the way people dress which I enjoy,” says designer Thula Sindhi, who is aiming to create future classics, “clothes that you collect like books in a library.” Even so, he adds: “Everything is political. We want to see ourselves in what we wear and what we eat, how we spend our money.”
Marianne Fassler, whose Leopard Frock label has won many honours, including the African Fashion International Award for Outstanding Contribution to Fashion in Africa (2010), says: “Joburg has always been the one that’s taken the endangered and the flotsam, the ones who can’t find asylum anywhere else… and as a result it’s got a wonderful cross-cultural hip aesthetic to it.” Leopard Frock has been a staple of the South African fashion scene for 40 years, with a very African design ethic. It reached prominence in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprisings. During the trade and cultural boycotts of South Africa, when imported cloth was embargoed, designer Marianne Fassler used vintage African fabrics. Consequently, she has a huge archive of them, which she raids for new collections of Afro-boho chic. “I’m still here and I still make political statements.” Fassler is cynical about the concept of Africa being “on trend.” “The trend has been going a little bit longer this time, but really Arica is absolutely timeless. We’ve reclaimed or redeveloped a pride in who we are. If you want to be unique as a designer you really need to look outside of fashion. Current affairs influence great fashion; seminal events affect the way people behave and dress.” With flaming red dreadlocks and white skin, Fassler says: “If you ask me where I’m from, I’m African. My own family has been here 400 years.”
Andile Buka, is a photographer and one of the Sartists, a creative collective documenting African street-style and born in Soweto, says: “The reason why we’re doing what we’re doing is to tell our stories. Most people are afraid to do that, they’re ashamed of where they come from, or what they do. I’m passionate about this city. There’s so much energy.” The Sartists have worked with major brands like Adidas, Levi’s and Converse. They and other fashion/creative collectives such as the Smarteez; I See a Different You; and the Ribane Siblings are referencing Joburg style in innovative, locally referenced ways. Their first major project was for a Brooklyn-based label, which they photographed in Alexandra township, rather than limiting it to New York street style. “We decided to use space we are familiar with, and we feel the world doesn’t know about; we are trying to challenge the status quo.”
Designer, PR consultant and journalist Maria McCloy is the founder of accessories and shoe brand McCloy, as well as a founding member of the politicised media company Black Rage Productions. “My mum’s Lesotho, my dad’s English. Although I was born in England, as a child, I lived in Nigeria, Sudan and Mozambique, then Lesotho. I came to Joburg to study. I’m a Joburger – if I could have a Joburg passport, I would.”
“When I was little, I loved the market. My mum says I used to go on her back, and I think that paved the way into what I’m doing now.” She started covering shoes in pan-African fabric. “There was something in that which really touched people. I think it resonated because they could see their history… But I’m also aware of what’s been done to us and how people think, so I’m trying to show African style in a new way. Why would anyone not be working with it?”
April 08, 2021