Fashion in South Africa is kind of a big deal. Far flung from your stereotypical African batik and beaded jewellery, these painfully cool style tribes are who many young South Africans take inspiration from today. From old-school Swenkas to lavish Skhothanes, here’s our guide to some of our favourite style tribes in 2017.
‘Swenking’, from the English word ‘swank’ has become known in South Africa — particularly Joburg — as informal Saturday night events where men compete for the title of most stylish. A grassroots movement which began in the mid 1900s, on weekends Swenkas (normally working-class Zulu men) strut their stuff, competing for prizes such as cuts of the entry fee, or even livestock. Normally adorned in high-end three-piece designer suits, sometimes teamed with brimmed hats and braces, the men are judged on their outfits and dance moves. One of the most influential of South Africa’s style tribes, they gained international recognition following The Swenkas, a 2004 documentary by Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde.
The super cool Sartists hailing from Alexandra, a township in Joburg, have done pretty damn well for themselves. Raiding their older relatives closets and the rails of second-hand clothes markets, creative collective the Sartists — Kabelo Kungwane, Andile Buka, Wanda Lephoto and Xavier Zulu — are making their mark on fashion in South Africa and beyond. Their combination of suits, shirts and sportswear has helped them get work with top international brands such as Adidas and Levis. However, according to their website, Sartists maintain that ultimately “having our own brands is important, because we get to dictate what we want without any considerations from elsewhere.
Meet style collective the Smarteez, straight out of Soweto. These fresh young innovators seek out fabric shops to customise their clothes and develop their outlandish style. The Smarteez are known for their refusal to be ‘put in a box’ or conform to social or racial stereotypes in South Africa, instead expressing their freedom through their creativity. As Floyd Avenue, one of the founders of the group, told Huck magazine: “We don’t really have that hate or divide between us, you know? Our parents are very submissive people. They were made to feel inferior and they wanted to pass that down to our generation: this is how you do things, this is how you don’t do things. We’re breaking through those barriers. We are all equal. We need to take pride in who we are and where we are, and that needs to start with supporting each other.”
South Africa’s fashion subcultures can be a little male-dominated. Enter the Mqoco sisters, three young women from Pretoria working in the creative industries (who are actually sisters) who task themselves with boosting female confidence through fashion. Named in The Superbalist 100, a list of young creatives shaping South Africa’s youth culture, each sister represents her own style, from bohemian to minimal styes. As Yoliswa, one of the sisters, puts it: “It’s important for women to wear whatever they like when they like. Society silently dictates what we should put on every morning and how we should represent ourselves, and I feel really strongly that we shouldn’t fall prey to that notion. I’ve always worn what I liked and I’m being appreciated for that now and inspiring others to do the same.”
Another fashion subculture out of Johannesburg, ‘Skhothane’ is local slang for ‘hustling’ or ‘boasting’. Known for their expensive taste and preference for luxury Italian brands, the Skhothanes have a decadence that landed them with a bad reputation. Since 2012 the tribe began to go out of favour following bad press for their alleged destruction of their expensive gear, including biting iPhones and burning money. But others argue the reputation wasn’t deserved, and the movement was about a break for the past and demonstration that these free young men could be wealthy, too. Today, there are also offshoots of Skhothane which argue they are reclaiming the subculture, for example ‘The Tarianas’ (slang for ‘Italians’) who have kept the style without the destruction: according to VICE magazine, “it’s about a style of dance and a style of clothes, a kind of skhothane-lite, revelling in the sartorial as status symbol and dance skill as a measure of township savoir faire”.