11.08.2015

The State of SA Menswear

2Bop, Sol-Sol, Young and Lazy, SPCC, Burgundy and Simon and Mary

 

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Design: Sabrina Scott

I was surprised to learn that Lukhanyo Mdingi needs to sling burgers in order to support his fashion label. Here’s a guy, a darling of the industry, being featured on all the right blogs, getting invited to fashion weeks, collaborating with our finest talent, asking, “Do you want fries with that?”

In a perfect world he’d be asking a different question, one posed at boutiques: “Sold out already, how many more units do you want?”

Now Lukhanyo is not alone in his situation, and given the burgeoning maker mentality you can’t spit in either Juta or Bree Street without hitting a slashie who’s doing some graphic tees on top of his photography or DJ gig. Between the couture designers at the top and the dudes slapping logos on 5-panel caps at the bottom, we’ve focused on the middle, and identified a handful of local designers who straddle the fine line between art and commerce.

I stopped by at The Corner Store a week after the launch of their new space to discuss, amongst other things, the trials and tribulations of being a young independent. A major problem for most designers is that most work on consignment, and so if a boutique doesn’t sell their stock, they’re stuck with it. In order to have more control over their retail operations three designers have thought innovatively, pooled their resources and opened up shop. On a corner. 

The man behind Young and Lazy, Anees Petersen, is only one of those two things. We’ve seen some of the one-offs he’s made for Fani, which are super cutting-edge, but for his brand to be more commercially viable he’s toned this down and focused on what works for him: a core range of clean designs with his signature logos.

Anees already knew in high school that he’d become a designer. What he didn’t know was how hard it would be. People are still telling him to get out, yet he stays on, despite being offered a job from Wo*lwo**hs as a knitwear designer. R16k starting salary… all those benefits like 70% off of food or whatever... But he said no, at a time when his account balance was a whopping R33. 

“I wanted to give it one more shot, and so I said no to the cash. And it seems that the risk has paid off. The lifestyle that comes with it makes everything worth it. The hurdles help you appreciate it more. You can’t have it too easy I guess.” 

Mathew Kieser from Sol-Sol makes it look too easy. Mat cut his teeth working for a supplier to that big retailer in Durban, and when it came time to go his own way his bosses gave him time, cash and contacts to pursue his dreams. Mat then won a competition that got him a booth at a US trade show and face time with Jeff Staples.

“This thing popped up online, Skillshare – six different videos, twenty minutes each, running you through different parts of the business. Designing, retailing, dealing with vendors… that type of shit. At the end you had to submit your own brand through the site and the winner would show at a trade show in New York. From about one hundred entrants I was included with nine other dudes to go to New York for a week. We showed our range to Jeff Staples and gave a business plan of what we wanted to do, and they came back to say that I was the winner. That was rad because I got to show at the trade show, obviously it helped a lot, I picked up a really nice order, and then spending time with Jeff and his team taught me more in three days than the previous ten years.” 

Sol-Sol has a really clean aesthetic and seems like it could come out of anywhere. You wouldn’t guess that it’s South African, and when you realise that it does then that’s even more exciting.

Anthony Smith from 2Bop is the undeniable godfather of Cape Town street wear and has always remained true to his roots with a distinctly Cape Town flavour. Their whole thing is based on a retro arcade aesthetic, 'two bop' meaning 20c, what it cost to play an arcade game back in the day, and this is carried over to the basic street wear staples: headwear, tees, crew sweaters and coach jackets.

“I always wanted to start a brand. Grew up skateboarding and surrounded by that do it yourself 90s skate culture thing. I wanted to emulate that and a friend of mine, Shukrie Joel, he’s always kind of drawn inspiration from local culture and local language and slang, he inspired me to look at my misspent youth and drawing inspiration from that I came up with 2Bop.”

What’s happened now is that the OG, the new kid and the golden boy have pooled their resources to open their own brick-and-mortar. The relationships were already there, Ant producing T-shirts for Sol-Sol and then Anees doing design work for Ant. It all happened quite organically where all three used to stock Smith & Abrahams and an opportunity came up where they could take control, make better margins and push their own agenda from the space that they used to wholesale to.

“It’s still early days but I can totally see us all going to a trade show together,” says Ant. “Representing South Africa in a way that would tell a much more interesting story than us being there by ourselves.”

Mat thrives on the healthy competition. “We all want the store as a brand to do really well. And want stuff to sell, whatever it is, but when I saw some stuff from Anees’s range the other day I was like, ‘Oh shit, I have to up my game and make some rad shit.’ It will be cool for us to see what the others are doing and then try and one up it.” 

Young and Lazy pushes basics as a skate label right now and plans to do more high-end stuff later on. 

“As a business you have to have a balance. If you cater to a niche market it’s more of a risk. I’ve kind of split my business in two where I push my basics as a skating label. That’s all I’ve been doing as it generates more income. At the moment I sometimes feel like I’m recycling prints. Sometimes that’s boring but it’s business and it sells. I actually don’t like doing branded stuff. But people want it and it would be stupid for me to not capitalise on that. I’ve just been focusing on pushing it as a street wear brand, build it up to the point where it can run itself and then I’ll focus more on designing and doing other stuff.”

What Anees and the other guys won’t do is fashion week. Because what’s the point?

“Not for me,” says Anees. “All it does is take up your time, your money... And if you can afford that then go for it, but for a small business where money is tight I’d rather put that into selling stuff. It’s all about bloggers anyway, and it just seems to be a social thing. I had a meeting with the fashion council and they said that I need to be doing fashion week, mingling, suck dick, and I found that ridiculous. That I had to be friends with certain people and be in a certain social circle for the sake of getting my brand somewhere.”

“They should just make it one big cocktail party,” laughs Mat. “Getting dressed up and taking photographs of each other.”

Ant latched onto the fashion council last year and says that there’s support. That government has realised that fashion is one of the quickest ways to create jobs with relatively small capital investment. He reckons they’ve earmarked the industry and that we’ll see more support in the future.

So, what else needs to be done?

Says Ant: “If we’re going to reinvigorate the textile industry here the big retailers need to take the lead and import less and manufacture more stuff locally. It’s fine for little guys like us to be running around and doing it but I don’t know how much of an effect it will have on the economy in terms of the industry or getting it back to where it was.”

“And stop copying,” adds Mat, who recently saw his Sol-Sol logo hijacked by Topman in Oxford Street. “Exact same fu**ing logo. Here it’s even worse. There’s horrendous stuff that happens here.”

We leave Corner Store and head up north to an industrial area in Johannesburg. Dean Pozniak is different from the aforementioned designers in the sense that he owns all the production facilities behind his business, Simon and Mary

Dean thrives on the energy and as an old school manufacturer enjoys working from an industrial area where he lives by the advice that there’s nothing more satisfying than hard work paying off.

While having a factory at his disposal means that Dean can create every day, he’s realistic in the sense that he’s not simply making things for the sake of it.

“It’s all good being creative but the business side is as important, if not more so. You need to understand your costings, running the business, positioning the staff etc, then set yourself realistic but high targets and make damn sure that you get there no matter how.” 

Simon and Mary is locally produced product with distribution partners in Australia, North America and Europe. Dean mentions Katherine Pichulik, Laduma Ngxokolo and Mathew Kieser as three other locals who have positioned themselves as international brands.

“They have taken both the creative and business aspects and have followed through professionally and, well, at an international level.”

Instead of being threatened by designers branching out into headwear, Dean welcomes it.

“For me we should all be in this together trying to build the South African fashion scene as well as the manufacturing side to it. When designers and brands branch out into headwear I would rather assist them in their process then get in their way because I am afraid the market share isn’t big enough for both of us. The point of life is being happy and sharing in that life - I don’t see why it should differ in business.”

In fact, Dean's such a positive guy that even Eastern imports have a silver lining.

“Its very hard to compete with them. For us the way we wanted to combat this was to create a local brand - being manufactured locally - with high quality product. The more hats that are on the market the better. It helps the hat game when large retailers import cheap felt hats from China. Firstly the more people wearing hats the better. Secondly it helps differentiate our product to what comes from Asia.”

Price will always determine the emotions of the consumer. But this works both ways and if the consumer is paying a high price for something then they will make sure to investigate the fabric, finishes, fit etc. If they are paying a cheap price then under normal circumstances they will realise why they are paying a cheap price - cheap product.

Zak Venter is founder of SPCC, Sergeant Pepper Clothing Company, a Durban-based menswear brand that he started so that he would no longer have to travel abroad to buy what he wanted. At time of interview he was on his way to the states, this time to showcase his brand at a trade show in Las Vegas.

SPCC has been doing strong, minimalist, well-made menswear since 2012. By partnering with key South African artisans who share the same values and brand ethos as them - Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants, Rosetta Coffee, Fhatuwani Mhukheli, Donny Truter and Johnny Cradle - it’s helped to create an authentic lifestyle brand that's bound to gain global appeal. 

“One of the key elements that we built SPCC on was collaboration,” Zak tells me on his way to the airport. “We have a passion for celebrating artisans and their creative flair and skill. The idea of shared economy really intrigues us, the concept of not being the best in a particular industry but rather exploring what it looks like to be the best for a particular industry.”

As South Africans we’re becoming more educated consumers, caring about things like fabric, fit and finish, something that SPCC tapped into with their Reveal The Process campaign, which ensures that they not only deliver good quality product, but takes their consumer on a journey that pulls back the curtain on the process behind their products.  

 “I get excited about new brands launching. The more high quality menswear brands that get started in South Africa the better.”

The Burgundy Collective is based in Stellenbosch and specialise in beautifully made, well crafted goods. Unfortunately their small team of five people were too busy designing to get back to us. What we can tell you is that the brand established in 2013 manufactures a range of high-end genuine leather bags using local materials and quality craftsmanship. Think travel bags, business briefcases and smaller accessories that are constructed to grow more beautiful with age and wear. The greatest care and consideration is taken throughout each step of the process, from cutting and sewing the canvas, to finishing the leather and hammering the rivets. So there you go then. 

Back at The Corner Store I ask the guys how we, as a retailer, can help small guys like them. 

“Show us the money,” laughs Anees.

Matt says that we’re already helping. “I placed a pretty big order on Monday and that’s money in the bank. With that money I can start working on new stuff.”

Ant wants us to tell their stories and not only hype all our cool imported stuff.

And then Anees drops in on that. “But living with all the other amazing brands that you have, that’s quite a big thing for me, being on the same platform as brands that we look up to - Vans, Carhartt and Stussy - it legitimizes us. Having a Young and Lazy tee next to a Carhartt tee next to a Two Bop tee next to a Stussy tee next to a Sol-Sol one. It looks good.”

And with burgeoning brands like Young and Lazy, Sol-Sol, Two Bop, Simon and Mary, The Burgundy Collective and SPCC - the local menswear scene is looking good, too. Onwards and upwards.