As fashion director of You, Drum and Huisgenoot magazines, Chu Suwannaphais a busy man. Add to all that his booming fashion label Chulaap, already on it’s third collection, and his first foray into homeware for the upcoming Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, and you get a sense of whySuwannapha is known as the busiest man in the biz. Well, that and as the “prince of prints”.
His work at the fair retranslates his signature use of African patterns into a new series of wallpapers that, Chu tells me this week, “celebrate the amazing beauty of Africa”. It’s the first time that the designer is creating his own, original prints, as opposed to the kind he has used in the past such as traditional wax, shweshwe and Basotho blankets.
“I have been raised, as a Thai person, to respect other people’s cultures. I don’t understand isiZulu, or isiXhosa, or even what a Basotho blanket is all about, but use these fabrics because of their beauty,” Chu says.
Does he think his work appropriates a culture that isn’t his?
“People can say anything about my work – I’m not South African or African – but I am trying my best to celebrate Africa, and still respect it,” he says.
“I might be wrong, I’m not always right, but the strangest thing for me as a foreigner is how many South Africans don’t use the history of this country to inspire themselves. In my work, I see how big Africa is globally, but struggle to find enough work to use in my job that I can source locally.
“If someone wants to work with culture, you need to understand how much you are promoting culture. It’s not easy to avoid when working with African prints, to not make something look like a ‘costume’, so I am working to make it modern for modern African people.”
It’s a conversation we could have for days, but he’s a busy guy and adds, before we part: “Before I came to this country, when I was in Paris, I never wore print, but in this country the ambience, the people, the food, the streets, everything you touch ... I’m just absorbing it all, and making it a part of me.”
Make sure you follow @ChuSuwannapha on Instagram – his feed is one of the coolest – and head to the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair to see his latest collection (sanlamhmc.co.za)