More than just a Sartist, Ricky Kunene is sewing the tapestry of his life
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon
Xzavier Zulu is the pseudonym Ricky Kunene created for his other life, and if it sounds like a superhero’s moniker, well, maybe he is?
How else do you explain a dude dressed in an orange two-piece, Goodhood oversized fanny pack slung across his chest, unlaced Yeezy Boost 350 v2 on his feet and artworks by Kaws and Takashi Murakami permanently etched into his skin?
Brand conscious but not a price snob, the majority of Ricky’s clothing is thrifted, and he’s the type of frugal shopper who will spend on an item what most urbanites pay for two hours of city parking.
“My biggest fashion statement is wearing a new white Pep T-shirt every day. It only works out to a couple of hundred rand a month, and I get to do drops for all the homeless people on my walk to work. Actually, whenever I get seeded something new I like to try and give something away.”
These seeds have germinated and put down some pretty solid roots, with The Sartists collaborating on a Supershell campaign with adidas, creating a 90s-inspired Pantsula/Kwaito lookbook, which was the catalyst for Ricky quitting the agency life to focus on the work that moves him.
“We get taught that after college you must go and work at an agency and at 35 you’ll make CD and at 45 you’ll become ECD and then you die... Well I’m 24 and don’t really want to be doing Wimpy menus and selling life insurance.”
So Ricky hustled an internship at adidas, moved to Cape Town and now manages menswear apparel for Originals, Skateboarding and Accessories. On top of this, he somehow finds the time to work on a collection of repurposed Levi’s garments from his mentor Celeste Arendse’s Selfi studio.
Before Xzavier Zulu there was just Ricky Kunene, a quiet boy living in Durban with his mother, and because he didn’t have too many people around him, he spent the majority of his time in a state of quiet introspection and figuring things out for himself.
The rest of Ricky’s formative years were at an elite boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, a place he credits for helping him to maintain his integrity and sense of self after his move to “Sin City”.
It was in this “abyss of sex and crime and lots of money, where you usually have to do the wrong things to get that money…” where Ricky attended Vega and found himself a part of The Tumblr Generation.
“It was the beginning of online-expression and being able to share your opinions and passions with other people like you. That’s when I met up with Wanda (Lephoto), via a Tumblr DM, who then introduced me to Kabelo (Kungwane).”
Even though he was late to the party, Ricky had plenty of party favours and was able to contribute the formal skills he’d picked up at college.
“It was a skill exchange where I got to share my book knowledge of what The Sartists were already doing. It was really good for me, too, as I’d never had anyone listen to any of my ideas before.”
There was also The Sartists' shared love of thrifting, and Ricky was introduced to the hidden gems that Wanda and Kabelo had been sourcing from for years, and soon his mother started to worry how her son was always dressed so fresh.
“I got into thrifting because I didn’t have the resources to buy the brands that I wanted. Vega was on the outskirts of the Joburg CBD and I was new to town, learning the taxi routes, getting lost, venturing out and exploring all these little stores selling things like Levi’s jackets for R60. My mom was worried – black parents are so prideful, they don’t want anything that’s cheap – people must know you bought it from Sandton, they can’t know you got it in town. She came around when I started buying for her, too.”
The Piles is a Joburg institution where, the story goes, Americans, Westerners, first-worlders or whatever you want to call them donate clothing to the Salvation Army, which then trickles down into different parts of Africa. Some of which becomes available for sale to savvy thrifters who pick through the piles of clothing around the Joburg CBD taxi ranks.
“Wanda, Kabelo and I have a pretty specific idea of what we’re looking for, but there’s often random stuff that you can’t not buy when you see it. Like Givenchy socks, a Burberry jacket, vintage soccer tees and baby Levi’s for when those little Sartists come. I even found Y3 there before. R30! It’s not the same nowadays because the Nigerians go through everything before the piles open at six, then put on their markup and sell from their stores in Newtown. It sucks paying R200 when you know where they’re getting it from and what they would’ve paid, but I suppose they can do that because they’ve done the legwork and it’s still good to find things like a leather trucker jacket that would usually retail for, like, 9k.”
Having spent his stint in Joburg snapping up as much of his beloved red tab denim as possible, Ricky is now using parts of his collection to create a range that he hopes to show on a runway one day, and has brought along several pieces with him in a tote bag that he constructed from a pair of Levi’s engineered denim.
“At first I didn’t believe what I’d found and had to call Wanda to make sure that the stitching and details were right. I’m always looking for certain styles and the engineered denim is one of those. I actually got really angry the other day when I found a pair of 501 XX shrink-to-fit vintage denim that had been cut into shorts. Typical Cape Town, you had to turn them into shorts. The patch was perfect and if they were complete they’d fetch an easy 20k in Japan…”
I ask Ricky if he realises the irony here, that isn’t what he’s doing kind of the same? Apparently not, and he says that he’s doing it with finesse. Maybe he’s right - this isn’t simply denim he’s sourced and stockpiled, it’s his passion, and more than once he’ll refer to the different pieces in his collection as his children.
His patchwork pants serve as something of a sketchbook, and he’s been working on them for the last three-years. In a state of constant flux, right now they’re six pairs of different jeans, which keep getting more edits as he learns new tricks and tries out more techniques using denim.
“All together these probably only cost R100, but for me they’re still the most valuable piece I own. I’ve now started adding the year and jean type to the inside of the pocket to keep track of things. But just by looking at these I can tell you that this piece here is from a 514 and this here is a 527… I really like how when you unpick a pocket there’s a darker dye underneath, and I did this pocket in the front because I was tired of being pick-pocketed. That’s my signature, having the pocket in the front for my wallet and my phone. I’m actually a little annoyed that other guys in Joburg have started to steal that now.”
The Sartists have always put a great emphasis on story-telling and using their creativity as a way to solve a problem, which is why Ricky’s attempting to create an entire range comprising solely of repurposed Levi’s denim. When he's working on his project, now with a working title of 50S (that’s Five-O-Sartists), Ricky slips on a stiff denim apron that Levi’s gifted him to protect him from his fabric scissors.
“Because lord knows I’ve cut myself really bad, so I wear this when I work now. It’s functional and it also makes me look cool while I live the dream.”
Inspired by Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy’s collection comprising 19 brands ranging from Fila to Kappa, Ricky’s plan is to create three head-to-toe looks for a show that will showcase his customization skills as well as his relationship with the brand. Along with his patchwork pants and the totebag, Ricky’s got a bucket hat, a beret, a second tote bag in white denim and a tactical jacket that’s still under construction.
“All the pen marks show you how many damn mistakes I’ve made with this. I know what I want, I can see what I want, but to translate that onto cardboard and make a pattern is quite tough. I’m not a ‘designer’ because I don’t have the paper, and ‘creative’ is such a loose term, so I suppose I’m just someone who wants to put ideas out there and make the best things possible.”
Ultimately, Ricky’s a problem-solver, so when the jeans that his girl picked up for him in Berlin were too small, he cut them up into strips and is now using the off-white pieces as binding for his pure white jacket.
“I take cues from actual designers like Celeste and Wanda, who will tell me to change the application of a button because it will make something easier to use. But then I’m also able to learn from anyone, so if, like, an accountant has an opinion I’ll take that. Why not? You’re foolish if you don’t keep an open mind. Sometimes being naïve can be a good thing because there are no limitations and you just want to do stuff to see stuff happen.”
Like the denim facemask?
“It’s for that Hypebeast life! Yo man, Japanese people really inspire me. You don’t always have to try and save lives or cure cancer. Sometimes it’s fun to just make something that’s aesthetically amazing. Sometimes I just want to do something because I want to do it.’”
Which perhaps sums up Ricky Kunene best: if he wants to do it, he’ll do it, just to see it happen. Like the Xzavier Zulu name he christened himself with or his new career at adidas or his skunkworks Levi’s project... And there seems to be a growing audience happy to eat up whatever he’s got for us, which in turn will help him to eat. Ricky is the first to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that a lot of his work is simply him exploring his creativity. So what if he doesn’t have the technical skills of a designer? A life lived as authentically as denim means that he can make mistakes, patch things up, start again, and not have to be so precious about everything.