It’s Personal

Six SA fashion designers talk personal style and public creations

Words: Rosie Goddard | Photographs: Rudi Geyser | Creative Direction: Gavin Mikey Collins

When a designer emerges at the end of their fashion show in an unfussy outfit, usually paired with some form of practical shoe, I always imagine that we’ve been left out of a private joke. As they churn out seasonal collections and dictate what trends will form the basis of our obsessions next, year after year, they sit pretty in a studied selection of neutrals.

Take Alexander McQueen as an example. While his collections, inspired by his darkest fantasies, featured over-the-top costumes crafted to dramatic perfection, he always appeared at the end of his shows in baggy jeans and an old tee. A seemingly odd contrast, or perhaps, it makes perfect sense. On the other side of the coin you get the Donatella Versaces and Betsy Johnsons of the world – the designers that embody the essence of their brand and live their unique vision as it’s an innate part of who they are.

What is it that makes these people dress and design in the way that they do? Are some simply freeing themselves from an unending cycle of trends? Are their collections inextricably linked to their own style? Or are there personal or practical reasons at play?

Whichever way a designer leans, it’s not to say that one is less or more creative, original or inspired than the other. It’s a celebration of individuality and talent that one person can  create a range of beautiful garments that they would live in everyday while others design pieces they wouldn’t necessarily don themselves. And where the similarities between a designer’s style and collection aren’t always outright, there’s always a common thread, however subtle. It could be in their choice of fabric, an appreciation of simplicity, fine craftsmanship or in their love of the unique.

To explore the link between designers’ style and the clothes they create, Superbalist stylist Gavin Collins decided to shoot six of his fashion designer friends. “I’m fascinated by the concept of using fashion as a construct to express personal identity. What you put on your body says a great deal about who you are as a person. The idea for this shoot was inspired by my friends and how their personal style is represented in their brand’s aesthetic to varying degrees. The first pictures of the designers in their everyday looks were shot in a place that felt very comfortable to them such as their homes or studios. The second pictures were a fantasy that each designer and I conceptualised together. I wanted these locations to embody their aesthetic and also have a personal connection to their work.”

JODY PAULSEN, artist and fashion designer at AKJP

If you really want to understand the difference between Jody’s personal style and his approach to fashion design, you need only look at his bedroom and studio space. The former is a white haven, meticulously laid out with not a cushion out of place, while the latter is a creative, chaotic mess with scraps of scribble-covered paper and fabric pouring off of every surface.

Jody’s idiosyncrasies only add to his level of intrigue, and while his designs for Adriaan Kuiters are off-kilter, his personal style couldn’t be more classic. “It’s quite minimal and practical,” he says of his look. “I wear comfy knits and sneakers on most days. When I’m in studio, I need to be able to move in my clothes. I often design bold prints that I wouldn’t personally wear as I dress according to whatever I have to achieve that day. I really enjoy the artistry of clothes and I think that’s visible in how I dress.”

This appreciation for artistry is present in his collections too and builds the bridge between his personal style and public creations. “Whenever we start a collection we always look at pieces in our personal wardrobes as a starting point. We try to evolve these elements as opposed to re-representing them.”

BLÜNKE JANSE VAN RENSBURG, founder and designer at Cheap Indulgence, ELLE Rising Star finalist

When Blünke was studying fashion, her lecturers couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around her patterns. Supersized and utterly wacky, the pieces were like nothing they’d ever seen, and all this from a somewhat awkward, softly spoken 21-year-old. Describing the look as “cheap chic meets kitsch couture and supermarket fab,” she also tells us how her personal style is just “a lower level of crazy, but no less striking and bold”. The benchmark for both? As you can see from her shoot, “Whatever will look great in any supermarket under dreamy pink neon lighting.”

Blünke uses fashion to express her innermost thoughts and characteristics. She admits that she pushes herself to be courageous by donning over-the-top creations, and to embrace her inner weirdness, “cheapness” and awkward nature. The same goes for the pieces in her collection (menswear, we might add) – “I design for maximalists and expressionists, people who totally and fully appreciate a lot of detail.”

Her refreshing authenticity extends from her style and collection to all of her viewpoints, from her colour preferences (“Sickening lime green and flaming electric pink – more aspirational than wearable”) to the accessory that best represents her: “ A knockoff Gucci handbag, because I'm fake and flaunting it.”

CELESTE LEE ARENDSE, founder and designer at Selfi

Quiet confidence radiates out of Celeste, and for such a small person, she is a big presence, but not an intimidating one. Instead, she’s friendly, approachable and humble, and her sense of self-assuredness is an important factor in both her personal style and her seasonal collections, which feature bold prints, beautiful fabrics and striking, sophisticated silhouettes.

“Selfi is about unlocking the inner child, empowering and exploring the self and living by your own compass. There’s a focus on bespoke, thought-provoking attire that exudes dreamlike qualities, but it’s still classic and wearable.”

Like many other designers, she embodies her brand but also doesn’t like to overthink getting dressed in the morning. “I’ll often wear all black then mix it up with a printed item the next day. I design bold pieces because I like tapping into an alter ego or creating an ideal form of escapism for someone else.” Describing her own style as playful, sophisticated and vintage-inspired, it makes total sense that she creates comfortable clothes for others that “still feel rare and unique.”

(Special thanks to the Smith Gallery for letting us shoot in their space.)

QUAID HENEKE, fashion student, founder and designer at
Warp & Weft

“Pastel pink.” Replies Quaid when we ask him about his favourite colour. “When I wear it, it makes me feel empowered because there’s still this stigma about men and pink in society.”

There’s no doubt that Quaid is completely comfortable in his own skin. It comes across in his unabashed confidence (on the shoot at CPUT, he danced away in his design, unfazed by the growing crowd of onlookers) and his norm-challenging collection. “I design for people who have no gender boundaries and feel free whether they’re shy or eccentric. It’s all about the silhouette and the appreciation of playful, thoughtful creations.”

Describing his style as “midlife crisis gay daddy in the club” (a testament to his imagination), his look is surprisingly pared-back – think bomber jackets, polo necks and various thrifted finds which come together to produce a look that’s sleek and urban without trying too hard. This sense of statement-making simplicity translates to his designs, but they’re decidedly more avant garde in their function and silhouette. “A lot of designers choose to keep their personal style as a blank canvas and project their vision of the world through their collection. I like to think I’m combining fantasy (my design) with reality (my everyday looks).

PETRO STEYN, founder and designer at Skeet

Petro doesn’t talk a lot – but then again, she doesn’t have to: the juxtaposition between her personal style and her collection speaks volumes about her wild imagination. Originally from a small town in the Karoo, Petro was one of the first people to start working with Die Antwoord around the time that they made it big. “It was a really fun project,” she explains. “I created the jumper-style white tracksuits seen in the Enter the Ninja video. Then Ninja customised them with his own illustrations.”

Equally fierce and mild-mannered, Petro is most at home in a hoodie or oversized tee. While her designs are similarly unfussy, her use of neoprene and latex gives her collection eccentric, experimental character. “There’s a kind of freedom in being a designer and the wilder you get, the more you stand out ... I guess that's what makes it exciting.  My personal style is easygoing… I find that being self-conscious affects the way I dress, so I always incorporate comfort into my look, and it’s an important aspect of my designs, too.”

Perhaps this contrast is best explained in the fashion items that represent her personal style versus her design aesthetic. The former? An inconspicuous (yet stylish) neoprene backpack to “keep everything together” and the latter: A futuristic dress made out of a deconstructed wetsuit – one of her first creations.

NICOLA WEST, founder and designer at W35T

If the iridescent fabrics and the futuristic feel of Nicola’s outfits imply that she’s anything other than a beach-going nature lover, perhaps her passion for natural fibres as well as the way she describes her favourite colour (“sea green with a touch of blue. The colour of the Atlantic Ocean after a storm has kicked up sediment”) will convince you otherwise.

Of all the people we shot, Nicola is the one designer whose collection is a complete extension of her personal style. Her range came about as a need to create clothes for her body type. “Because of my large derrière I could never find pants that made me look and feel comfortable, so I made my own. I design for myself. I make clothes for my booty and small upper body, so pear-shaped ladies will look best in my pieces.”

“Elegant gangsta.” Is the way she describes it. “I say ‘elegant’ because of the natural fabrics I use to make comfortable, beautifully-fitting clothing that can transition from day into night. I say ‘gangsta’ because of the cockiness associated with the word and because I like adding a fat chain around the neck.” Armed with a bubbly personality and a unique sense of style to match, Nicola is wonderfully content marching to the beat of her own drum.

Whether a designer wants to hold a little part of themselves back from their creations, project a different side to their personal style through their work or lay everything on the line for people to love; each approach to dressing and designing is fascinating in its own right.

And when the designer emerges at the end of their fashion show in an unfussy outfit, usually paired with some form of practical shoe? Perhaps it’s not a private joke, but a telling, deeply personal representation of who they are at their core, when the layers are stripped back and we finally get a glimpse of the person behind the brand.