While it was once a revolt against mainstream fashion and classism, today street style is commercial – usurped by big brands and worn by every cool kid in Braamfontein. But three photographers are depicting the style in a refreshing way, and with unconventional subjects, writes Moroetsana Serame.
Acotton eater’s (a colloquial term for a fashion connoisseur) paradise is a place I imagine to be filled with Braamfontein cool kids, softboys breaking down the walls of misogyny while wearing flower crowns, one earring dangling from their left ear, with black nail polish on their thumbs, and a young working-class womxn doused in faux fur living up to the phrase “rich aunt aesthetics”.
It’s difficult to conceive street style as anything else nowadays. Tapping through 15-second long Instagram stories eventually becomes a sea of redundancy.
In an effort to be different, people are starting to look the same. In the sarcastic words of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada: “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking.”
Alas, like all other things that capitalism manages to usurp, street style has become gentrified. Our concept of street style today has become boxed into a one-dimensional stereotype.
Street style originated from an underground, alternative movement that deviated from mainstream fashion. At its core, it has always been an expression of anti-classist notions and gives a mouthpiece for the marginalised working-class youth.
Largely due to its accessibility and free-spirited nature, street style puts power back into dispossessed young people’s hands.
The sneaker movement is a prime example of this. Sneakers were considered symbols of affluence afforded only by those who were wealthy enough to purchase them. Now they’ve been reclaimed to express the sentiments and aspirations of aggrieved young people, fuelled by the commercialisation of hip-hop as a vehicle of revolt.
Acclaimed rapper YoungstaCPT condensed this beautifully when he said: “We’ve always been put down. We’ve always been sidelined. We’ve always been forgotten. And yet we come out looking better than those who have money and those who are the elite.
“We naturally want to excel and bubbles [a colloquial term for sneakers] make us feel like we up there somewhere in the clouds.”
Not just for the youth
Photographer Irvin Khumalo’s series challenges the way we see street style, particularly sneakers. In his series Not Your Average Sole, Khumalo explores the idea of the elderly being ambassadors of street style, as opposed to it being youth-centred.
“When the idea for Not Your Average Sole came about, I was making my way about Soweto. From Mofolo to Mapetla, I was wearing my new Nike sneakers and began to consider how comfortable they would be for our grandparents who walk long distances going the clinic or to fetch their grant money. I also wanted to explore fashion and sneaker culture. I wanted to erase the common perception that sneakers are meant for cool kids,” he told #Trending.
The series is particularly moving in how it connects the common thread of marginalisation and vulnerability that both the youth and the elderly face.
The photographer explores the sneaker as a status symbol and elevates it to a symbol of pride and history passed down generations. His series takes the phrase “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” to the profound level of having our grandparents walk in our shoes, and vice versa.
Similarly, visual artist Imraan Christian explored sneaker culture in the Cape Flats. His work centres on coloured people as the leaders of style and sneaker culture, while highlighting the poverty and neglect they suffer.
What Khumalo and Christian both achieve is placing street style in a context that goes beyond its normal setting, and “one that exists partly as a lived experience and partly as a hopeful gift from generation to generation,” said Nabeel Allie in an article for Highsnobiety.
Tastemakers in Alex
Similarly, in Lenzo Mangonyane and Francesco Mbele’s partnership with Adidas in the FW19: Home of Classics, we see the visual art duo re-imagining Adidas in a context that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The Adidas Supercourt has a classic 90s tennis silhouette. The image of the shoe and the sport itself is one that is associated with sophistication.
“I wanted to re-imagine its original image by removing it from its natural setting and interpreting it within a misunderstood and misrepresented environment,” explained Mangonyane.
The photoshoot took place in Alexandra township. Mangonyane emphasised that they chose the location because it is often misrepresented and spoken of in a negative light.
“For me, Alex has been a place of family and warmth, so being able to shoot there was a very significant aspect of the series,” said Mbele.
It is familiar in the sense that informal settlements and life in the township are common lived experiences in an unequal society such as South Africa’s and in the context of the legacy that apartheid created.
However, it is particularly powerful because it highlights the way large brands have instilled themselves in poverty-stricken areas, drawing from the style of those communities, repackaging it, and then selling it back to them. When one closely examines the ensemble worn by Mangonyane, which comprises an Adidas tracksuit and additional pieces that he hand-stitched from an old garment, it’s clear that it is similar to the attire that wastepreneurs wear when they leave their homes in the township to earn a living in the suburbs.
What Mangonyane and Mbele achieve is reconstructing and retelling a story of people living in the township and redefining them as tastemakers of street style and, as such, influencers of the global fashion scene. Their aim was to explore and experiment with new forms of themselves and how people see them.
For Adidas, placing the Supercourt in the context of informal settlements is a campaign. However, for residents of Alexandra township it is a harsh reality that they cannot simply pack up and leave.
The wastepreneurs are often faced with disdain and are even unwelcome in certain suburbs. The irony is that large brands such as Adidas often find a place in townships as symbols of status, but the consumers of these brands, who dwell in these informal settlements, have lived experiences that are marred by discrimination in spaces of status and affluence.
Using 35mm film, Mangonyane and Mbele have been able to rebut presumptions made about people living in informal settlements. They show us the sophistication and “ghetto-chic” that isn’t often conveyed in high fashion editorials. Lastly, they highlight a prominent issue in fashion, which is the appropriation and gentrification that major brands often commit when it comes to street style.
Street style is about more than just aesthetics, and influencers are not just those we see on Instagram. Anyone can be a tastemaker of street style, it is a matter of perception. Just because it doesn’t fit our definition of what being edgy entails doesn’t mean it isn’t street style.