Africanising Hybridity? toward an Afropolitan Aesthetic in Contemporary South African Fashion Design

By Farber, Leora | Critical Arts, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Africanising Hybridity? toward an Afropolitan Aesthetic in Contemporary South African Fashion Design


Farber, Leora, Critical Arts


Abstract

Setting out from the assumption that South African fashion designers and their garments are noteworthy, yet underexptored, agents of socio-cultural change in post-1994 South Africa, this article will show that despite being untapped, the field of fashion and its propagators is firmly interwoven into the social and economic fabric of post-apartheid South Africa. It seems to be the case that South African fashion design is beginning to contribute to the reorganisation of socio-cultural and economic life in this country, by foregrounding South Africa's contemporary cultural heterogeneity, effectively marketing a range of creatively 'African' fashion garments, and enhancing the market-oriented and socio-cultural positions of fashion design and propagators thereof in local and global fashion markets. In what follows I point out key aspects of how this is taking place. Significantly, for the purposes of this themed issue, fashion and fashion design in South Africa are seen here as 'constructed from a range of disparate but at all times culturally-conditioned elements, or as a series of assertions suggesting that economic and organizational life is at present more culturally-determined than it appeared to be in the past' (see Narunsky-Laden 2008: 139), and as such they endorse a cultural economic approach to local fashion design and the economic dynamics thereof.

Keywords: Afropolitan, contemporary South African fashion design, hybridity, Stoned Cherrie, Strangelove, Sun Goddess

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Aesthetic cosmopolitanism is the condition in which the representation and performance of ethno-national cultural uniqueness are largely based on art forms that are created by contemporary technologies of expression, and whose expressive forms include stylistic elements knowingly drawn from sources external to indigenous traditions. [Regev 2007: 126 (emphases added)]

Drawing on Suzanne du Preez's preliminary research and discussion of hybridity documented in her MA dissertation, Hybrid identities in Johannesburg: grafting garment, city and self (Du Preez 2008), this article seeks to augment and enhance, both conceptually and through concrete analysis, our understanding of a particular range of styles produced by three prominent, Johannesburg-based designers of South African fashion. These designers and their garments gesture toward what might be called an 'Afropolitan' aesthetic, in which both African and cosmopolitan aesthetics are reworked and integrated.

The designers I have chosen are notably Johannesburg-based, and as such they are firmly embedded within, and suggest new embodiments of, 'the African modern' (Mbembe & Nuttall 2008: 1, see also Hansen 2000 and Hendrickson 1996: 3-14). Although a number of other Johannesburg-based designers may be equally representative (such as Black Coffee, David Tlale, Craig Jacobs, Mantsho, Bongiwe Walaza and Sister Bucks Mosimane, to name but a few), I have restricted my sample here to three fairly well-established fashion labels which have been in business roughly since the year 2000, and whose designs seem to epitomise the nuanced range of African and cosmopolitan aesthetics I wish to investigate. The three designers, namely Sun Goddess, Stoned Cherrie and Strangelove, are regarded here not merely as producers of an 'African fusion' sartorial style, whatever this might be, but also, and significantly, as cultural mediators on at least two different levels.

On the first level, the garments and styles they design and produce comprise a range of modern-day hybridised identity options in which African and cosmopolitan aesthetics are fused. The second level relates to the underlying dynamics of organisational and institutional processing, marketing and management of the garments and styles designed by Sun Goddess, Stoned Cherrie and Strangelove, which suggest that a new system of stratification is being established through which South African fashion designers are organising themselves, and being positioned within, South African and international fashion markets. …

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