The Sartist on football, his father and presenting a new style
Words: Tommy Dennis | Photography: Bantu Mahlangu
It's one of those days in Johannesburg when the mornings are frustratingly cold and the afternoons are baked by a high winter sun, what passes for Autumn in the highveld, and it's under this grey brightness that Kabelo Kungwane takes us on a football tour of his hood, Alexandra.
Kabelo Kungwane and the collective he's part of, the Sartists, have for the last five years been a disruptive voice in the South African fashion industry. If you primarily know the Sartists and Kabelo by extension through their styling and fashion work, then it might be curious to see his hyper-interest in football. Yet it isn't so odd, because despite their international appeal the work of the Sartists is deeply founded in the cultural codes of South Africa. Football is no different, and despite the enthusiastic support for British football in the country, South Africa has a rich football heritage of its own, and any time spent in any community around the country will show you how deep this love goes.
The early work of the Sartists and much of what drew initial attention to them are in one sense a representation of black masculinity, not too far removed from dandyism and certainly manifests strong evocations of La Sape or Harlem Dandies. Certainly, their preoccupation with the aesthetic of the past brings this into sharper focus, but if anything their work flies closer to the photographs of Santu Mofokeng and that grounds their processes in a very black South African frame. It's a subtle escalation of class and how this interacts with race within the complex identity pathways fostered by South Africa.
It's no different for Kabelo, in fact his love of football may run deeper than most as his late father was the esteemed playmaker Isaac "Shakes" Kungwane who most prominently played for Kaizer Chiefs in the 90s. Framing this love, Kabelo has boxes of vintage South African football paraphernalia, stickers featuring old sponsor logos and jerseys that run the gamut from Orlando Pirates to iconic Bafana Bafana pieces.
"My family is all connected to football and funny enough grew up supporting Pirates. My grandfather was Irvin Khoza's friend. Irvin Khoza used to live at the back of this house. My grandfather used to think that he would end up owning a club just like Pirates."
It's an understatement to say that football is in his veins and the connection he feels to it goes beyond mere entertainment. Over the past few days Kabelo's been involved in setting up a local football tournament, played right in the streets of Alex. He speaks heavy with emotion when he describes how the success of the tournament affected him.
"That's why the tournament I did here was important. We've been doing projects in London, done the MoMa in New York and we did a masterclass in Amsterdam, but I've never done anything here for my people. The work I'm creating is for them, they influence everything I do. I actually broke down at the end of it because it was such a success."
Working off that idea of returning home to create, Kabelo and fellow Sartist Wanda Lephoto have recently begun creating their own sportswear influenced apparel line called KasiFlavour10. The brand isn't the typical T-shirts with footballs on them or anything similarly banal, and like everything else that Kabelo does it's intrinsically tied to his personal experiences. One line of shirts uses the font of the Mexico 1970 World Cup, as his father was born in the 70s. Another design features all the teams his father played for, in a conspicuously 90s design. The number 10 features prominently in everything, which isn't random as "Shakes" was a playmaker and this is the traditional number that a playmaker would wear. Kabelo lives and breathes football, and if you scroll back his Instagram far enough you'll find photos of him and Wanda wearing the iconic 96 Afcon Bafana shirts at Fashion Week.
This story that Kabelo styled for Superbalist is a South African remix of the European terracewear favoured by football hooligans and grime artists alike. Think PSG shirt with tracksuit pants tucked into socks. Kabelo offers a down-home Alex inspired take on this, with a blazer on top of a Kaizer Chiefs jersey and club socks worn with retro sneakers. Why separate your love of classic menswear staples like penny loafers and football? Why not follow Kabelo's lead and take inspiration from some of the looks he put together here?
"I grew up from a football background and I love style, especially the classics. I always want to combine the two, always! Especially since it's World Cup, so jerseys are going to be everywhere. It's the unexpected mix where instead of your button down shirt you throw on a collared sports jersey."
Style-wise Kabelo has been following his own path for as long as he can remember, and this is why he's able to not only stay ahead of the curve, but also dictate trends in his own way. You may have noticed that adidas and Nike are releasing more grails from their 70s and 90s archives that have been slowly bubbling up for a minute now.
"I don't see it as a trend, because it's part of my life, collecting anything that's cool, and it's not necessarily always vintage stuff. Personally, design back then was so intriguing and the attention to detail was very strong."
Kabelo's preference for the past is also a play on manifestations of memory and how memory interacts with other historical forces. How many young football fans in the country remember Nelson "Teenage" Dladla or Ace Nstoelengoe? Yet these same fans will be able to tell you about George Best or how important Michael Owen was to Liverpool. A reason for this might be how underrepresented earlier eras of South African football were in terms of football media in this country. Kabelo mentions that this may also be because of the lack of authentic jerseys from this era.
"In terms of the football stuff. It's really hard to find tangible stuff. When people have passed on in black families, people either give things away or burn it. A lot of stuff has been lost. I'm trying to conserve this stuff. The KasiFlavour10 stuff is almost an educational project. I'm trying to preserve South African football culture."
KasiFlavour10 is an ode to the titans of the South African game as well as the aesthetic of a bygone era, what started off as T-shirts is slowly morphing into a larger enterprise and a more complex stylisation of items. With every T-shirt that Kabelo makes or vintage item he collects, he's presenting back to us his stylised vision of South Africa. One that celebrates the everyday heroes of the country, men like his father.