Street style photographers are reshaping the way in which South Africans engage with fashion
Words: Caron Williams | Images: The Sartists, I See A Different You, Trevor Stuurman, Obakeng Molepe and Imraan Christaan
Identity has always been a complex idea to me. Truth be told, it’s something I grappled deeply with for a very long time. A black woman from Limpopo named ‘Caron Williams’, a surname which is a lingering remnant of apartheid, who cannot speak her mother tongue, never knew her mother and had to navigate Cape Town’s complex white and coloured communities, resulted in a great deal of anxiety about who I was. I felt deeply displaced for most of my life and realised I needed alternative ways to define and express myself.
Fashion, particularly street fashion, offered me that.
Fast forward to 2018 and I’ve never been more proud and self-assured of myself and my blackness, and a large part of that has been because of the rise of South African street style and urban culture photography. Before representation was en vogue, Tumblr saw the emergence of a select group of South African photographers capturing local millennials in a way no one had really done before. Lingering on the outskirts of South Africa’s very white and elite fashion industry, these photographers defied traditional fashion’s glossy aesthetic and captured everyday South Africans in a way that was raw, authentic and reflected nuances of who they were and the area that defined them. Fashion wasn’t just about selling product anymore, it become about representing the people those products were targeted at.
South African street style photographers not only manoeuvred around traditional fashion’s gatekeepers, they communicated a narrative so powerful that the industry had to pay attention. With their extraordinary documentation of what South Africa’s millennials and Gen Z looked and dressed like, they became the new vanguards of South African fashion. They also understood that fashion wasn’t merely about what was being worn; it was about an attitude and a paradigm shift taking place.
“I think its [street style photography] impact has been seismic. In the early stages of the phenomenon in South Africa, there were few of us and the black street style photographers offered a new perspective and insight into what millennials wore and how they chose to represent themselves through clothes. I remember photographing so many of the people that are instrumental to street fashion and street style now – The Sartists, Didi Simelane, Nokana Mojalepo, Thabang ‘Bang’ Rabothata and a host of bloggers, influencers and the like. I think street style photographers like myself and others at the time really amplified and gave a visual impact that to this day has influence.” – Anthony Bila
The evolution of street style photography and its impact on the entire South African fashion ecosystem has been immeasurable. Trevor Stuurman, who emerged after winning Elle Magazine’s first Style Reporter competition, has since gone on to shoot national campaigns for adidas and had his work featured in British Vogue. Photography and creative collective, I See a Different You, developed a photography style and fashion aesthetic unique to themselves and have gone on to work on countless brand campaigns, establish their own creative agency and inject that aesthetic into their work. Proud of their Soweto roots, they ensured that ads finally represented what South Africans actually look like. The Sartists, another talented photography and creative collective, have collaborated with some of the biggest brands in the country and spread narratives about South Africa through street style internationally.
Cultural brands such as adidas South Africa have further cemented the influential role street style photographers have had locally by collaborating with a number of them and adopting a distinctly street style aesthetic in many of their national campaigns. The adidas Originals EQT campaign shot by Imraan Christian featured gritty, street style inspired shots and their recent adicolor campaign, shot by Trevor Stuurman, steers away from traditional campaign photography by incorporating vibrant creative patterns often seen on the streets.
Last month we also saw Kenny Jules Morifi-Winslow and Twiggy Moli feature on the cover of The Throne Mag; Rharha Nembard, Manthe Ribane and Nonku Phiri cover Elle Magazine South Africa, as well as Aisha Baker, Kefilwe Mabote and Sbahle Mpisane cover Cosmopolitan South Africa, a feat that would be impossible without the foundations laid by street style photographers.
“For the longest time, street style was all they'd let black photographers shoot. It feels like we were blocked out of a system we should've been thriving in. Many characters which I could name built the face of the local photography scene, at least the one that I've always been part of. Our advantage against the gatekeepers was that we were always on the ground and knew what was hot before anyone else did. We all had our start from the same vision straight from street style. We became the story tellers and we're going nowhere so the stories will improve. The characters will change but the truth from these voices must remain.” - Chisanga Mubanga
Local street style photographers have led a social movement that has ushered in representation behind the camera and in front of it. Street style photography has done what traditional fashion photography has never been able to do in this country – it has eloquently articulated the essence of an entire generation. A nuanced narration, they’ve intimately detailed a restlessness and new found confidence young South Africans have grappled with and embraced. We’d still be trapped in a disconnected, white-washed fashion industry telling us that our beauty is not enough, that our fashion is only valid when appropriated or “ghetto until proven fashionable” and that there is no place for who we are on newsstands, were it not for their efforts. Not only have street style photographers become the new narrators of South African fashion, they’ve become creative activists redefining the fashion industry one photograph at a time.