In South Africa, a new generation of designers and artists are defining their own gender fluid aesthetic and defying outmoded ideas of race and sexuality within the context of the country’s complex social landscape. The post Apartheid constitution outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996, and South Africa was the fifth country in the world — and the first in Africa — to legalise same sex marriage a decade ago. This is in stark contrast to most of the continent, where homosexuality is illegal, and in some cases punishable by death, in 34 of the 55 African Union nations.
However “progressive” South Africa’s attitudes may be on legislative paper, beyond the country’s urban centres homophobia is still rife and violent acts against gay people are severely underreported — especially “corrective rapes” of lesbians. Add to that worrying levels of unemployment, a still real gap between classes and races, and the Born Free generation who are now disillusioned by the utopian promises made to them regarding their rainbow nation.
In this context, gender-neutral fashion is able to go beyond being simply a trend to become an active protest against prejudice. Brave talents are looking locally for inspiration and debate while still speaking a universal language. Whether actively tackling LGBTI rights head-on or not, their work marks a bold departure from the norm.
Label AKJP, by Cape Town duo Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen, is known for minimalist, graphic leanings. The pair were selected as one of four design entries to show at the Ethical Fashion Initiative’s Generation Africa show at Pitti Immagine Uomo in Florence in January 2016, where they debuted their AW16 collection. Sporty silhouettes including low-slung dungarees, apron skirts, anoraks, and trousers with peek-a-boo knees were covered in tropical prints and appliqué — a reference to rural Durban and the music of Herbie Hancock.
‘We started out making menswear then moved into womenswear and our approach to both is the same. Most of our clothes are unisex. You could call it a tomboy look,’ says Henning, who has an industrial and furniture design background and originally launched the brand as Adriaan Kuiters in 2012, before collage artist Paulsen joined a year later. Their understated approach has won them numerous accolades including being picked to participate in Vogue Italia’s Fashion Dubai Experience. ‘Social attitudes toward gender have shifted and everyone is doing their own thing in their own spheres,’ says Paulsen. ‘We say it in a quiet way and want our customers to feel grounded in our clothes. They’re simple looks that will serve you well and allow you to be yourself.’
Young designer Blünke Janse van Rensburg only just completed her studies at Elizabeth Galloway Fashion Design School in Stellenbosch last December, but is already making noise through her kitsch ways with satin, taffeta and crushed velvet. She was shortlisted for the prestigious Elle SA Rising Star Award, where she showed her SS16 $Cheap Indulgence$ collection. ‘It’s about my obsession with supermarkets and the mystical power of neon lights. Everything is colourful, especially prom dresses and flashy cakes. It is a metaphor for unrequited love and indulging yourself in the thrill of frills to fill the everlasting void,’ Van Rensburg says. Her exuberant pink outfits, covered in bows and flounce, are aimed at those with a head full of dreams and skip in their step, regardless of whether they’re female or male. ‘I embrace all genders so the penis, vagina, and boobs don't define the garments. For me it’s a move towards feminism and equalising the sexes,’ she adds. ‘In South Africa, fashion is one of the few arenas that takes a new approach to gender. We’re embracing unisex because gender has passed; it's overrated. Why separate the sexes when you can have it all in one?’
Johannesburg-based Rich Mnisi graduated from LISOF Fashion Design School and Retail Education Institute in 2014 and then was named Africa Fashion International’s ‘Young Designer of the Year.’ He’s since forged a reputation for his vintage pop culture-inspired, architecturally cut collections. ‘I wouldn’t say I am consciously aware of making androgynous clothing but because my customers share ideals and enjoy being a canvas for beauty and storytelling; the look automatically feels gender neutral,’ says Mnisi. ‘For many years women have tried to push through the walls put up by patriarchy, and men have tried to find their place within traditional masculinity. It's a struggle for both genders and not everyone fits in, so this current conversation is a way of extending everyone’s means of expression.’
For SS16, he worked with South African photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman and stylist Gabrielle Kannemeyer on a lookbook shoot in Soweto, where they captured the essence of township culture in the 80s and 90s. ‘It was an era when showing up and making sure that you're put together very well was paramount. Everyone was just so cool and sure of themselves.’ Among Mnisi’s model line-up were FAKA (performance art duo Fela Gucci and Desire Marea), whose work extols black queer voices. ‘The collaboration was a natural process because everyone involved understood the importance of confronting intersectionality,’ say the pair. ‘We also have a spiritual connection with clothes, as they were the first way we both learnt to connect with our true identities and use them as a powerful tool.’
Gucci and Marea (real names Thato Ramaisa and Buyani Duma) met in 2010 and then began to build digital worlds and audio visual projects — such as Scarvenger and From A Distance — where confrontational identities and body politics reign. ‘We are doing the work of our ancestors. Our mission is to heal our people by exposing every raw truth about our existence through what we understand as performance. We explore our own bodies as black queer people who exist against the sociological backdrop that has worked systematically to erase the beauty in our experiences.’
FAKA joins a growing movement of creatives changing South African narratives, including musicians Angel-Ho and Dope Saint Jude, dancer Llewellyn Mnguni and visual artists Athi-Patra Ruga and Zanele Muholi. Also on this list is Umlilo aka Siya Ngcobo aka South Africa’s Kwaai Diva. On the scene since 2013’s Shades of Kwaai EP, he fuses rap, sparse pop, gqom and house into the township slang for “fierce.” ‘Kwaai is that sound you can't quite figure out because it has a nostalgic feel to it but sits squarely in the future, it defies genre and makes up rules only to break them. It's a very disloyal type of music,’ Umlilo quips. To perform, Umlilo uses clothing to incite his audience to ‘stop bitching and start a revolution’ and describes his style as ‘a mix of avant-garde with underground and flamboyant baroque. It sits somewhere between high fashion and low fashion.’
On the song Chain Gang he imagines a fashion funeral for Rita, the baddest street queen around who took a bullet to protect her community.’ In the video he plays the corpse, the widow — and the priest, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Karl Lagerfeld. Bibles are replaced by Vogue, and rosaries by gold necklaces while mourners take selfies next to the open coffin then turn the aisle into a catwalk.
On their well-dressed backs are pieces by local designers including Lukhanyo Mdingi. ‘He’s a real talent,’ enthuses Umlilo. ‘I believe in our young designers’ vision of a more unified sense of gender instead of the inherited binaries we keep perpetuating. Fashion is one of the necessary foundations that push a culture forward so their work is admirable and beautiful.’
The love is mutual. ‘It’s artists like these that use their own distinct mediums and talents to inform our country and the rest of the world about the current LGBTI community,’ posits Lukhanyo Mdingi. He honed his clean aesthetic at Cape Peninsula University of Technology and garnered global attention for his SS16 collection of linear silhouettes in tonal shades of indigo. ‘I feel that fashion has a language of its own, an interpretation of so many lives and cultures and it will always be coherent to each person in their own authentic way,’ explains Mdingi. ‘I love using fabrics and adornments to create art pieces that are fluid for both genders.’ For AW16 he collaborated with Nicholas Coutts, who specialises in hand-loom weaving, and joined AKJP on the Generation Africa Pitti Immagine Uomo lineup. Military jackets, jumpsuits and cord coats in earthy reds and greens were smothered in oversized scarf extensions. ‘The collection draws on Africa's landscapes and evokes fabrications that embody tangibility ad feeling.’
Photographer Anthony Billa has been documenting South Africa’s fashion cultures since launching his street style blog The Expressionist in 2011. ‘It was born out of the need to showcase how people express themselves through clothing, especially here in Africa where so often we’re misrepresented by western media,’ Billa says. He has gone on to establish the consultancy The Uncultured Club — for which he recently shot with FAKA — and has become an authority on South Africa’s famed fashion crews, ranging from the dapper threesome The Sartists to the all-dancing V.I.N.T.A.G.E.
‘As with any trend, it began in the streets where emerging artists always create out of necessity. Among the subcultures of Johannesburg and Cape Town especially, but not exclusively, there is a conscious effort to breakdown gender stereotypes and constructs. These designers’ work is giving vim and vigour to the fashion world, both locally and internationally,’ Billa says. ‘It’s an exciting time to be documenting the transition. Androgynous fashion is working its way to the mainstream where we’ll no longer be defined by what we're wearing but rather by how we wear it. It's a brave new world.’