The heart of African fashion in Jozi

Yeoville is keeping the spirit of Afrocentric fashion alive. Residents from across Africa believe that fashion shows more than style but it reiterates their presence and their identity. The people of Yeoville wear their Afrocentric fashion or “African wear” daily and fail to understand why other Africans wear Eurocentric every day.

Sunday afternoons in Yeoville can look like an Afrocentric fashion convention, with many residents sporting African printed designs on their way to church. But this celebration of African print is not restricted to Sundays. African regalia has become part and parcel of Yeoville’s day-to-day life.

FOOT WEAR: Victor Stamp displays his handmade African sandals every day on Rockey Street. Photo: Percy Matshoba

After South Africa became a democracy in 1994, anti-apartheid boycotts were lifted, imported goods started flowing in and so did people from the rest of Africa. Yeoville, which is close to the Joburg CBD, was one of the suburbs that attracted many immigrants. Although many of these people may have had to leave their loved ones behind, they refused to leave their identity.

The people of Yeoville are bold dressers. They wear loud prints in what are seen as African colours: green, red, yellow and orange. But it’s more than just style. Through their fashion they express the identity of various cultures in Yeoville.

Fashion is a reflection of a community, wrote The Guardian UK fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley in her article, John Galliano’s return is more than a matter of style. Fashion world, wake up, published in October 2014. She wrote that fashion was important because it said “so much about who we are”. When a community changes its fashion trends it’s a result of a dynamic cultural shift, according to Cartner-Morley.

Editor of Marie Claire South Africa, Aspasia Karras, says the focus on Afrocentric fashion is a recurrence of what happened in the 1920s when African print made fashion headlines.

The history of Yeoville has always dictated its fashion trends. In the 1980s and ’90s this neighbourhood was a place for the lefties, the hippies, the rebels and non-conformists, whose clothes were just as left wing as they were.

While the rest of the country was following trends from the UK and US catalogues, Yeovillites were making and defining their own style. Their clothes were just diverse as they were. They mixed orthodox Jewish yarmulkes with African-print shirts and paired Western trousers with Zulu leather sandals, says former resident and writer Nechama Brodie. They embraced every aesthetic, every pattern, every print and every unorthodox style the suburb had to offer. And the new, Pan-African inhabitants are keeping this spirit alive. They too are setting their own trends.

Cartner-Morley wrote that fashion is a necessary means of expression. “… fashion is more democratic: a conversation in which anyone can have a voice.”

This is very true of Yeoville. The community is not as politically involved as it was pre-1994, but it is representative of people from all over the continent in South Africa.  The community members may not express themselves in a language we can all understand, but Yeoville’s cultural shift speaks loudly through their choice of clothes.

The people of Yeoville need not go far to find their fashion fixes.  The market on Rockey Street is a multicultural hub of “African wear”, more widely known in the fashion industry as Afrocentric. Several highly visible designers occupy stalls.

The Yeoville Market’s floors are dotted with offcuts of tiny colourful pieces of African printed fabric. These lead out of the market in all directions, from Joe Slovo Drive to Bezuidenhout Street, emphasising the presence of Africa in a previously Eurocentric neighbourhood.

Bashiru Gbolahan from Nigeria has been an Afrocentric designer for the past 13 years. The 30-year-old, who was born in Lagos, says he was taught to sew and design by his “master” whom he worked for after he graduated from high school.  Since he moved to Yeoville in 2012 he has passed his skills of designing, cutting and sewing on to four others, one Malawian, two Nigerians and one South African.

“Three [Nigerian, Malawian and South African] of them have now started designing on their own,” says Gbolahan, “Bashy” to his customers. And it’s Yeoville that inspires him to keep designing.

On the cutting table, a Nigerian fabric is laid out as a tablecloth. His mother gave it to him before she died in 2012. After taking care of her for three years, he decided to start over in South Africa.

BUYING AND SELLING: Surrounded by her popular designs of Afrocentric or “African wear”, Ruth Otoo Baiden (left) has a thriving business. Ghanaian Akua Florence (right) is a regular customer. Photo: Percy Matshoba

Bashy says his main challenge is importing fabric from his home country. It is expensive, which is why he is open to customers bringing their own fabric. Consequently, he has worked with various local materials, including the Sesotho seshoeshoe and the isiXhosa black-and-white umbhaco prints.

Bashy’s clients come from all over the continent. “Malawians, Ghanaians, Congolese, Zimbabweans and South African women also love my designs,” he says. And his customers flock to him from various parts of Johannesburg: “Sandton, Cresta, Yeoville and other places.”

This designer describes his style as “African wear” or “traditional wear”, depending on who is buying it and for which occasion. He says he started designing “African wear” because he is proud of his culture, Yoruba. He has also learnt to understand and appreciate other African cultures through their fabrics and clothes.

Bashy creates clothes for people of all ages. His two-year-old daughter wears his designs and so does his wife. He works for men as well, specialising in Afrocentric shawls and short-sleeved shirts that are called dupa in Yoruba.

Another designer at the Yeoville Market is Ruth Otoo Baiden. She hails from Ghana and says South Africans have become more receptive to the Afrocentric style. Otoo Baiden, who has been designing since 1980, says she has seen a substantial increase in orders from South Africans.

“I used to call it traditional wear but now I call it African wear because all Africans now wear my designs.”

Otoo Baiden’s signature design is a Ghanaian dress which she makes in any colour. It is a drapey, maxi-dress that she has on display.  Brown, with the collar and sleeves embroidered in cream and gold. This dress is called a boubou in her language, which is Twi. Unlike other African designs it is made from a synthetic fabric sold in Ghana. This dress has a similar cut to the common dashiki – which means shirt in Yoruba – but its fabric is sleeker and it has handmade patterns on the collar and sleeve.

Otoo Baiden’s design is accompanied by a head-wrap scarf in the same colour. She says it is mostly worn by married women in Ghana and some of the South African married or pregnant women have embraced the style.

Otoo Baiden imports her fabrics from Ghana. But she also gets material from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, and also uses South African seshoeshoe fabric. The designers in Yeoville sell their fabric to their clients and among themselves because of the high cost of importing the materials.

The Yeoville Market consists of 212 stalls, which differ in size.  According to market manager Sabatha Mekuto, the cheapest costs R60 per month while the most expensive, “with a higher roof”, goes for R360.  In some places lessees rent out their stalls and charge much higher rents.

Bashy’s “landlord”, for example, rents his space out for R1200 per month. The space is the size of a jail cell and can fit two tables and a chest of drawers. Bashy finds it hard to pay this amount for such a small space. “One day I want to open my own shop,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Afrocentric fashion has evolved over the years.  “It started off as quiet, iterative, reflecting back things that were quite obvious,” says Marie Claire editor Karras. The Stoned Cherry label that was launched in 2000 was one of the first that combined African prints with a Eurocentric aesthetic in the South African fashion industry.

Since then Afrocentric style has been getting more interesting and trendier, says Karras. People are using their cultural fabric in a more creative way. “It is no longer pastiche, or as though one is playing dress-up when one is wearing an Afrocentric [ensemble].”

A local South African designer meets a Nigerian designer living and working in Yeoville. By: Percy Matshoba

Internationally renowned labels such as Louis Vuitton, Noir Jewellery, Marni and Derek Lam are increasingly using African prints and designs. This is not a new thing, as Karras says, adding that it can only grow if the African industry embraces it.

The women and men of Yeoville are a few steps ahead in celebrating home-grown Afrocentric fashion. Mbali Langa, a 28-year-old South African who sells sculptures, says she started wearing Afrocentric clothing in 2010 during the World Cup. She was supporting the African countries, in particular Ghana. “That is how I got to meet Ruth [Otoo Baiden].”

Ever since she has been wearing “African wear” on a daily basis. “I want to represent Africa every day.” She wears these clothes to the mall, to functions, when she’s meeting people, and sometimes when she goes to clubs.

“Some people who are not from Yeoville even hleba [gossip] about me in Zulu, thinking I am a foreigner because of my clothes.” She has also switched from “bling” jewellery to beaded ear-rings and necklaces to complement her dress.

Ephraim Molingoana, a designer at South Africa Fashion Week and a Yeovillite, says although his neighbourhood has inspired the scope of his designs, the mainstream fashion industry has not yet embraced the African fabric. “South Africa is still widely Eurocentric,” he says.  The Ephymol label designer says Afrocentric fashion is not as popular among South African men as it is among their West African counterparts.

Maria McCloy, a well-known designer in the fashion industry, believes the contrary. “Yeoville is definitely a place where the Afrocentric style lives. Because of the Pan-African audience there are Pan-African clothes.”

McCloy was born in England and moved to Yeoville in 1997. She was attracted to it because of its energy and its rich history of music and arts. “It was very Pan-African when I moved there and even more so now.

“The fashion that mostly interests me is of people from the rest of the continent. That is what you see in the streets of Yeoville, mixed with South African street style and the usual Eurocentric.”

She says some South Africans in Yeoville may be wearing their regular “Mr Price” clothing, but many are now showing off their “African stuff”, made in the Yeoville Market.

She has always preferred a market setting to buy her clothing and this attracted her to Yeoville. Her inspiration from the market and the people of Yeoville manifested in her designs of Afrocentric shoes, bags, briefcases and suitcases.

AFROCENTRIC ENSEMBLES: Bashiru “Bashy” Gbolahan was taught how to design by his “master” after he graduated from high school in Nigeria. He immigrated to South Africa in 2012 and settled in Yeoville.
Photo: Percy Matshoba

“I use seshoeshoe, Swati cloth, Tsonga cloth, Venda cloth, and wax print associated with the rest of the continent.” She buys her Congolese, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Zimbabwean cloth in downtown Johannesburg.

Just as people from Nigeria, Congo and Lesotho in Yeoville wear their traditional clothes every day, McCloy believes South Africans should move away from the culture of embracing their traditional wear only on Heritage Day or at traditional weddings.

Many of the designers at the market wear these prints as an appreciation of their culture, says Otoo Baiden. They do not understand why other cultures fail to do the same. Wearing African clothing occasionally, while embracing Eurocentric clothes every day, is bizarre.

Masechaba Elizabeth Kolota, a 59-year-old Yeovillite from Bloemfontein, says the suburb has encouraged her to wear her seshoeshoe clothes every day. “I feel like Yeoville encourages me to wear my cultural clothes because everyone wears theirs.”

Karras stresses that it is important for African designers to take advantage of the currently Afrocentric receptive industry, by sticking to their own “narrative framework”. South Africa need not only be influenced by trends from Europe or the United States: “We don’t have to be just copycats, we really need to embrace our own.”

Therefore, a Zulu-speaking man walking on Rockey Street, in Yeoville, to the Green House local pub to watch a soccer match with his friends, wearing imbatata (Zulu for traditional shoes) a Congolese boubou (meaning shirt) and Yoruba ankara pants should not be a strange sight in a fashion-forward South Africa.

FEATURED IMAGE: Surrounded by her popular designs of Afrocentric or “African wear”, Ruth Otoo Baiden (left) has a thriving business. Ghanaian Akua Florence (right) is a regular customer. Photo: Percy Matshoba

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