Tigers don’t cry | King Kong


The trend for androgynous fashion is gathering speed globally and keeping pace with society’s broader conversations around gender. Whether it’s Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, models Andreja Pejic, Lea T and Hari Nef on the catwalk or Jill Solloway's hit series Transparent on TV, post gender issues are in the spotlight. Last year, London department store Selfridges hosted the unisex pop up Agender and H&M’s offshoot brand & Other Stories shot a transgender campaign. Meanwhile fearless brands such as J.W.Anderson, Vetements, Hood By Air, Acne, Rick Owens and Vivienne Westwood are blurring the lines between their men’s and women’s collections. As celebrities such as Kanye West and Jaden Smith are stepping out in tunics and Gucci puts bow blouses on guys, fashion is increasingly expressing a refreshing nonchalance toward the male/female divide.

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 has been outlawed in 34 of the 55 African Union nations, in some cases punishable by death. However beyond South Africa’s urban centres homophobia is still rife and violent acts against gay people are under reported, 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 are feeling disillusioned by the utopian promises made for then about their rainbow nation. 

In this context gender-neutral fashion is able to go beyond being a trend to become a protest against prejudice. Brave talents are looking locally for inspiration and debate yet speaking a universal language. Whether actively tackling LGBTI rights head on or not, their work marks a bold departure from the norm. South Africa possesses the biggest domestic fashion industry on the continent (rivalled only by Nigeria) and a growing menswear market. A dedicated men’s week launched last year. So now is the moment for the country’s new talents to stand up and be counted.

AKJP by Cape Town duo Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen are known for their minimalist, graphic leanings. They were selected as one of four designers to show at the Ethical Fashion Initiative’s Generation Africa show at Pitti Uomo Immagine in Florence this January 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 applique - a reference 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 has 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 completed her studies at Elizabeth Galloway in Stellenbosch last December but is already making noise with 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,” 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, whether 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 in 2014 and then named the 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 enjoys being a canvas for beauty and storytelling, the look automatically feels gender neutral,” Mnisi says. “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 the 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,” FAKA say. “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.”

Real names Thato Ramaisa and Buyani Duma, FAKA met in 2010 and 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 how 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 narratives in South African 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 bares an uncanny resemblance to Karl Lagerfeld. Bibles are replaced by Vogue and prayer beads by gold necklaces while mourners take selfies next to the open coffin then turn the aisle into a catwalk.

And on their well-dressed backs are pieces by local designers including Lukhanyo Mdingi. “He’s a real talent,” says 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,” says 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,” he says. “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 handloom weaving, and joined AKJP on the Generation Africa Pitti Uomo Immagine line-up. 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 African’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.”

Photography: Kristin-Lee Moolman
Publication: King Kong

Helen Jennings