Ali Abubacar is making a living breathing life into second-hand clothes
By Samora Chapman
Nearly everyone in the Durban scene will recognise Ali Abubacar, aka Father Moon. He’s that cat in the corner at The Winston with a pile of vintage clothes, always wearing an interesting outfit with a magnetic smile. You may have seen him buried in a yellow novel with dog-eared pages, or overheard him speaking passionately about the art revolution.
I’d heard a murmur that Ali moved to Durban from a small village in Malawi and that, just a few years ago, he was working as a petrol attendant at a Shell garage. So I connected with the king of style on a tropics-hot afternoon to find out for myself.
“I come from Mangochi in the southern part of Malawi. It’s right on the lake's shore,” he tells me the first time we meet at 8 Morrison Street in Rivertown, where he now has a fly boutique vintage clothing shop. His beautiful baby daughter, Malaika, is sleeping in a pram and he watches over her as he tells me his story…
“I grew up in an Islamic family and went to a Muslim school. After school I came to South Africa to study writing. I was at UNISA for a year, then I dropped out when the hustle got too real. I was staying with my older brother and after he packed and went back to Malawi I ended up on the streets. I was 20.”
Homeless and disenchanted with the education system, Ali went looking for any job he could get, first working at an optometrist in town, then at a factory making polystyrene plates. Things started looking up when he got a job teaching Arabic and Islamic studies to kids in a block of flats at North Beach, the mecca of surf city.
“Being at the beachfront, I got exposed to a whole new lifestyle and culture,” he says, flashing a passionate smile. “I would teach in the evenings and so all day I would just chill around – I took skating and surfing lessons, played beach volleyball, and I always loved the clothing and styles on the beachfront. I saw how people have a connection with the ocean and I grew to love the ocean, too. I’ve always considered myself a pirate!”
Ali’s colourful and expressive style always stands out in a crowd. I’ve seen him shamelessly rocking huge earrings, dollar-dollar onesies and other outlandish gear, but beyond the costume it’s his powerful personality that shines through. Strolling into the city heat, baby Malaika awakens, but she’s quiet and wide-eyed as we head out to get a few snaps, a most unlikely trio.
“How did you turn your life around?” I ask, tentatively, as we find an old blue garage door to use as a backdrop. “Nothing wrong with being a working class cat, but how’d you go from being a petrol attendant to a fashion guru with your own shop?”
“I really believe in sharing your story, bru,” he explains. “People are receptive, they have the same thoughts and you can click with people. There was that time I was working at Shell garage, I met great individuals working there, people came through with so many different energies, and I met my good friend Brett Wegener there… He was passing by the garage with his camera, walking with no shoes on and carrying his lens in a sock! We shared a cigarette and made conversation. That night there was a battle of the bands at The Winston and we met again on the dance floor man! We killed the dance floor together all night!”
Ali is jumping around on the hot concrete as he tells the story how Brett Wegener ended up doing a photoshoot for Father Moon. We keep walking and Ali digs in the pram for another set of clothes. We hang a right up the alley behind Cool Runnings where some kids are listening to a boom box and puffing herb.
“Tell me about thrifting, how did you get into fashion and selling clothes,” I ask.
“My mother used to sell clothes. She was working in a bank during the week, but on Saturdays we would go to the market and buy second-hand clothes. She was very picky about the fabrics and the colours. She would bring the clothes home, wash them and give them to my brother to go sell. Now my life is going through the same footsteps bru! I’ve always loved thrifting. I started buying clothes off the streets here a few years ago, special items. Or sometimes I'll buy plain clothes and then add a pocket or a detail. I love fabrics. I carry my clothes around with me in a bag and resell them at gigs and events. I went to a big fashion show recently at the International Convention Centre, brought my clothes and ended up selling them in a small corner!”
We take a walk back to the shop 'cos Malaika’s getting hungry. Ali cooks up some grub and we resume the conversation as he expertly squeezes noodles into her tiny mouth.
“Where do you go thrifting?” I ask. “Can you share or are they your ‘secret spots'?”
“Victoria Street has some of the craziest clothing you can find, man. It’s a skill though, and some days are better than others. You need time and you need to enjoy it. What I like most about thrifting is that it’s recycling. We don’t need to keep mass-producing clothes when there’s so many clothes on the street for such cheap prices! Thrifting can save you money, you look cool, you can alter the clothes and add to them…”
Ali goes through his collection in search of another outfit, asking my opinion, mixing and matching. He goes for an African print shirt and some red corduroy pants that he’s altered.
“I love colour,” he says, “it’s an element that allows you to express yourself. Bright colours reflect my personality. I used to wear grey and black, but I got bored. I like my style to be fun and free.”
“How do people accept your fashion sensibilities?” I wonder out loud, trying to tip-toe around issues of masculinity and tradition. “Has it always been a way you express yourself?”
“I used to only dress up at home because I wasn’t confident enough to go out in public yet,” he says. “But I realised that I can’t make everyone happy. I get all kinds of reactions, but it’s okay… some people dig it! You’ve gotta be yourself with everything you do. Clothing is my second skin.”
Ali sheds his second skin and slips into a fresh get-up. “What’s your favourite item of clothing?” I ask.
“I remember in my first year at college I had this mean pair of cowboy boots… I used to be a small guy, but when I walked in with my cowboy boots all the bullies were like ‘Wow, this guy’s tough!’ But I would sacrifice my last money for a book, not a beautiful shirt or even food, because reading gives me comfort.”
“Have you ever been back home? Do you miss it?”
“I’ve only been back once, in 2010. Returning home taught me that I have a chance of making something in South Africa, bru, rather than at home. There is a saying in my country: ‘Mlendo amayenda ndilumo last kuthwa’ which means: ‘A traveller always has a sharper edge!’”
Ali’s phone rings… it’s his baby's mom, Portia, and we’re running late, so he changes Malaika’s nappy and packs up. We hit the road running. Daddies on da move!
“So how did you progress from a lover of literature and second-hand clothes to starting your own business?” I ask, trying to connect the dots…
“Life is about working for something,” says Ali from the backseat, holding his daughter tight. “Youth culture requires people that are independent thinkers. If you believe in yourself, people will believe in you. I got my shop through Reece Easthorpe. I told him that people love what I do, and I love what I do. I asked him if he could find me a space and now we’re up and running!”
“Where does the name Father Moon come from?” I ask.
“I wrote a poem called Father Moon celebrating the new experience of having a daughter. It’s about battling the boy in me, dealing with how I’m gonna be a father and raise my little girl.”
We arrive at the taxi rank in town jump out and try squeeze in a few more shots as the late light slips away. Luckily Malaika’s momma rescues her from the photoshoot moments before we run into trouble after some gangsters decide we’re stepping on their territory and tell us to piss off, sharp. They’re serious, one angry guy hollering at us in vernac and Ali’s lost for words. We give up shooting and head back to the car where I ask Ali about xenophobia issues and how this affects him.
“It really is such a huge problem,” he says, clearly shaken. “It hasn’t come to an end. There is still fear. I don’t even like to ride a taxi if I don’t have the exact fare. The moment I need to converse, if I don’t speak enough Zulu and I have to revert to English people start saying things to me. Shit you don’t wanna hear, man. Spiritually it goes beyond racial issues. Some people’s spirits have gone. Yet for me, I feel a need for people to unite. As African people we need to find a way to work with one another. We need each other. There’s so many things that foreigners do here that benefit society. And this country benefits Africa and the world. I could never run away from that battle, bru. I believe in unity. In unity there is power and I want to play a part in uniting people.”
Viva that, brother. We slap hands and I watch Father Moon disappear into the city with his precious fam. On the horizon, over the sacred sea, a full moon is rising.