Fashion woven into the fabric of Fordsburg

The neighbourhood of Fordsburg, west of the Johannesburg city centre, is a place of history and a wide diversity of cultures. But is there such a thing as a unique “Fordsburg Style”? 

Aneesa Omar leans against the counter in her store in Fordsburg. A beautiful, bright head scarf frames her face, complementing her trendy tweed crop jacket, white shirt, skinny jeans and jewelled, pointed-toe pumps.

Omar is a designer of Islamic fashion for women, and the owner of Silk, a small but popular boutique on Lilian Road. Silk is famous as the home of the abaya – Arabic for cloak – a traditionally black, robe-like dress that leaves only the face, feet, and hands exposed.

It is worn for modesty, but its simple styling allows for great versatility of design and trimming, which new, young designers such as Omar are taking advantage of.

The intricate detail of Silk’s designs can be seen on any of the mannequins that are on display in the store. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

Once a simply functional garment that signalled religious devotion, the abaya has become a fashion item in its own right and Omar’s beaded, laced and embedded crystal designs are proof of her claim that “Fordsburg is at the forefront of Johannesburg’s Islamic fashion”.

Overshadowed by the skyscrapers of glass, concrete and steel, Fordsburg lies just three kilometres from the centre of Johannesburg. It is a vibrant neighbourhood, not so much a melting pot as a masala of colours and cultures and traditions. A masala is a heady mix of Indian spices often used in delicious curries and it springs to mind in the way Fordsburg tantalises and seduces your senses.

The rise of Islamic fashion

In Fordsburg, you will find a modern building with steel windows right next to a century-old building with peeling paint that reveals the layers of its now-fading colours from over the years. You will find an authentic Egyptian shisha or hookah lounge right next to a Pizza Hut.

But when it comes to fashion and culture, the heart of Fordsburg is Islamic and it beats to the rustle of Silk.

Omar runs her boutique, situated next to a hair salon in the same centre as the Fordsburg Chicken Licken, which she jokingly claims “takes up all the parking”. With her mother Shanaaz Patel, a dressmaker, and her father and sisters, they have made Silk into the epitome of glamour for Islamic fashion.

“It started with my mom 16 years ago,” says Omar. “She realised there are no nice abayas here. So she would go to dressmakers and get the fabric and get them to make it. Then friends asked her, can you do one for me?”

Aneesa Omar and Eunice Modise are hard at work in Silk designing and making an abaya for a customer. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

Omar has no formal fashion training and in fact studied a business degree. But through her mother, she became involved in the business of Islamic fashion. “I sketch with my mom, and then my mom is at the workshop where they do the cutting and putting the design into a garment. It is a lot of trial and error.”

Islamic clothing is often stereotyped in the Western view as being drab and restrictive. In truth, Islamic fashion has exploded onto the fashion scene in a big way.

The British clothing chain H&M made headlines this year as Mariah Idrissi became their first hijab-wearing model.Layla Sallie modles a trendy abaya from the brand House of Yushrah, on the streets of Fordsburg. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

Layla Sallie models high fashion Islamic wear, such as the beautiful peach colored leggings on the streets of Fordsburg. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

Layla Sallie shows off detail such as the shoulder crystals on her abaya. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

Silk has been trading in Fordsburg since 2004. Omar explains that Islamic fashion thrives here because it is central, close to the freeway for visitors from out of town, and essential for supplies that are crucial to the practise of Islamic culture.

‘Islamic fashion is breaking through’

“You know with Islam,” says Omar, “when people eat halaal meat and all that, all the requirements are in Fordsburg. They have to stop here to go to the butcher and the grocer and get their spices. It just makes sense to be here.”

And it makes sense to shop for clothes here too. “Islamic fashion is breaking through,” says Omar.

“When we started 11 years ago, it was plain black abayas with not a lot of other detailing, mainly for religious purposes. So people wore them to cover up, and not really for fashion. Now they are very trendy. We have to change our designs every few weeks, and we have two fashion shows a year just to be able to keep up with the fashion.”

People come to Silk for the unique and trendy abayas and the head scarves, says Omar. But the “must have” item in Fordsburg, according to her, is the “high-low” hemline or the seemingly two-piece abaya. This style comes in a form that looks like a shirt and a skirt, giving the illusion of a two-piece, while retaining its essential modesty.

The low-high hemline is when the front of the skirt is shorter than the back and will come up to mid-calf.  “It’s an abaya but it actually looks like a skirt,” says Omar. “It’s not so traditional, so they wear leggings underneath them.”

Material and fashion – The gold of Fordsburg

While small boutiques like Silk embody the distinctive Islamic style of Fordsburg, the big, bustling centre of the fashion trade here lies within view of Silk’s storefront in the Oriental Plaza. Of the 360 stores in the Oriental Plaza, 128 deal with fashion in some way.

Jerry’s is one of the busiest fabric shops in the Plaza. It is a family business, run by Jerry Sakoor and his son Mohammed.

Mohammed Sakoor says that most of his clients come from other areas of Johannesburg. “I think everyone still likes their own thing, you know. I mean, we get girls that come in and want something classic and then you get girls that come in and want something modern. There is no such thing as one person’s fashion. Everybody has their own thing.”

Right now in Jerry’s, a trio of young women are helping their friend choose the perfect Chantilly lace for her wedding veil. Oohing and aahing, they place one fabric after the other over the bride-to-be’s head. “I just knew the drive would be worth it,” says one of the women, as the bride-to-be signals her excited approval.

Faruk Mdali, Ismail Hossain and Sunih Rayshanon (left to right), are hard at work even on a Sunday afternoon as their tailor shop, Faruk Tailor Shop, has customers pouring in and out of its doors throughout the week. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

Fabric and fashion are a huge part of Fordsburg’s cultural identity and its thriving marketplace atmosphere. “There are a lot of tailors coming here, and they are starting to do designs,” says Sakoor. “People are getting more and more involved in fashion. I mean, if you walk around Fordsburg you will see new tailors, guys copying guys in France and all that, and they are doing pretty well.”

Even as far afield as Sandton, known as the richest square mile in Africa, the fashion influences of Fordsburg make themselves known. The luxurious Michelangelo Hotel is the venue for the twice-annual Silk fashion showcase. Omar explains that it is an invite-only event, to introduce clients to the new range and spoil them. “Even though it is a closed fashion show, people frequently try and crash the event,” says Omar.

“I think we were the first to do an Islamic fashion show. Before that, it was unheard of to put abayas on a runway. That just goes to show how fashion is changing.”

The detail of Aneesa Omar’s work being reflective of intricate art can be seen by examining the detail up close. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

When you look around Silk, it becomes clear that Islamic fashion is full of colour and detail that goes back centuries, echoing the colours and traditions of Islamic art. The fabric ranges from the fluidity of velvet, which Omar explains is a major winter trend, to the coarse yet silky detail within the lace. “Currently, I would say, lace is in fashion and tweed as well,” comments Omar. The trend is reflected in her own outfit.

Fordsburg, she adds, is one of the few places in South Africa where Islamic fashion is still designed and tailored to suit the customer. “Not a lot of people manufacture the garments in South Africa,” says Omar. “They just buy them from Egypt or Dubai and sell them in places like Lenasia. That is what you get mostly. So I think Fordsburg is the only place where they are still manufacturing and designing, which obviously makes a difference, otherwise everyone else just has the same stock.”

 From manufacturing to fashion

One of the local suppliers of fabric to many Fordsburg stores is Nick Keves. He owns Superspun manufacturers, in nearby Albertskroon. He has spent most of his life in the textile business and, at the age of 70, he says he cannot quit as it is almost an addiction to him.

“There were a lot of big companies and one by one they closed down. Now what has taken place is there are a lot of smaller manufacturers who operate from home or garages or backyards or whatever who employ maybe five or six sewing machines.”

This smaller scale of infrastructure lies at the heart of Fordsburg’s fashion and material trade.  “I think Fordsburg has always been traditionally, sort of the place for textiles,” says Keves, “and it still is to a large extent. It has kept pace with the times. They cater for every single thing you can think of.”

Showing off his yellow Converse All Stars Isail Gulam poses on the pavement of bustling Mint Street in Fordsburg. He has been working as a car guard in the area for many years. Photo: Valerie Robinson.

The cultural style of Fordsburg

But the style of Fordsburg stretches further than velvet, Chantilly lace and beautiful head scarves. It is seen and felt in the culture and social habits of the people who live here. One of them is Zunaid Varachia, who owns a printing and graphics company in Fordsburg and has lived in the area his whole life.

“I’ve got a lot of friends of mine who say that there is a certain Fordsburg accent, that you could pick up in certain words,” says Varachia.

Asked what fashion statement item is most important in the area, Varachia replies: “Cars.” But it’s not so much about the car you drive, he adds. It’s about the size of your tyres. “The bigger the tyre, the better. So guys with a smaller car with a 17 or 18-inch tyre, that’s what speaks out.”

And, of course, whatever the size of your tyres, you have to hang out at the carwash if you want to be seen in style in Fordsburg. “There are a few carwashes in Fordsburg and it is quite a community hangout spot for young guys. On a Friday and Saturday afternoon you will find a lot of young guys hanging out at the carwash.”

As for men’s fashion in the neighbourhood, there’s a lot more to it than the traditional Islamic style. “Converse has always been a very popular thing,” says Varachia, referring to the trendy brand of sneakers.

“Another important thing about Fordsburg is that guys like their takkies to be pure white. Pure white sneakers are very important. You can have dirty clothes, but you can’t have dirty takkies.”

It’s that kind of attention to detail that dictates Fordsburg style, says Varachia. “You are not going to get that anywhere else, at the malls or the other areas. It is obviously what makes it unique.”

To understand Fordsburg style, says Omar, one has to note how diverse the area is, making it almost impossible to pinpoint. “Fordsburg is a melting pot of cultures, so I don’t think it has a specific style. Our clients prefer garments that are modern and trendy.”

And this seems to be a consensus across the board. Sakoor agrees, “You get everything here.  The residents are very mixed. There is Chinese stuff, Pakistani stuff, Indian stuff, everything in terms of fabrics and designs is in Fordsburg.”

But even if Fordsburg’s style may prove elusive by definition, one thing is clear. Fordsburg has a sense of spice and soul that you won’t find anywhere else in Johannesburg. That is what makes this little enclave so rare and vibrant. It is timeless, and yet it embraces change and new trends. Islamic or Western, old or new, traditional or cutting edge, the style of Fordsburg … is Fordsburg.

FEATURED IMAGE: The intricate detail of Silk’s designs can be seen on any of the mannequins that are on display in the store. Photo: Valerie Robinson.


The Tweak of Oppi

Tweak playing on the main stage at Oppi Koppi. Photo: Valerie Robinson

Tweak playing on the main stage at Oppi Koppi. Photo: Valerie Robinson

This past weekend saw over 20 000 people rediscovering the true meaning of roughing it. Oppikoppi 2015 saw the rise of new bands, some have never even been heard of, and the return of old time favourites.
One that really stood out of course was Tweak. Many of us will remember this band from our teenage years for singing songs about Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears in a hot tub, which really rocked the festival.
Oppikoppi was the stage for their big 10 year reunion. “When we realised it had been 10 years since Tweak ended we started throwing around ideas. We chatted to the guys from Oppikoppi and they we’re super keen for us to play the festival. It really just snowballed from there and now we are doing a whole tour!” according to the guys.
They confessed that “To be honest, we were terrified no one would care. When Oppikoppi made the announcement on social media the response was crazy! Everyone was genuinely excited.”
They said that the acts they enjoyed watching most was Scottish band Twin Atlantic and Johnny Clegg.Their favourite part of Oppi was, “Showering the crowd with 100 000 confetti dicks! haha! And hearing everyone scream the lyrics of the tracks back at us.”
Tweak is one of those bands that don’t take themselves too seriously and even admit to making the biggest blunders live. “We’ve made them all. The great thing about Tweak is that we never pretended to be shredding, awesome musicians. It’s about having fun and connecting with the crowd.”
Looking to the future and present not many people know that Crash Car Burn found its origins in Tweak. “Tweak was us being teenagers. We were young and stupid and it was a shit load of fun. CrashCarBurn is Garth and I growing up” said drummer Brendan Barnes referring to his brother and the lead singer for both bands.

They will be performing in Joburg again tonight the 14th of August at Rumours Lounge, for those who could not make Oppi or even for those that just want to relive the experience.The band joked that people can expect “All the hits, a healthy dose of nostalgia and a hangover.”

Silence is Golden

 Valerie Robinson

The silent protest  will take place on August 19 at the Flower Hall. Photo: Provided

The silent protest will take place on August 19 at the Flower Hall. Photo: Provided

Next weekWits will host its third Silent Protest. The University has been hosting the event which takes a stand against rape, sexual abuse and any type gender based violence since 2013.

“Overall in South Africa, such a shocking number of rapes go unreported. And the ones that do get reported aren’t actually picked up by police, you know the kind of victim blaming” saysBertrand Leopeng, one of the event organisers and an intern phycologist working at the CCDU.

The creators of the initiative at Rhodes University held their version of the protest this past weekend, showing their solidarity over a three day period. It has since spread to other universities such as UKZN and UCT.

2013 was a shocking year at Wits University; multiplelecturers at the university were accused of sexual harassment.  This as one of the reasons students at Wits decided to host this initiative according to Leopeng.

“Those are only some of the reported cases. Thankfully action was taken and our VC moved pretty quickly to make sure Wits is declared a safe zone” saidLeopeng.

“Coming into women’s month, it’s a good time to highlight these types of things. Because you know women’s day it’s kind of a day that is supposed to be about the celebration of women’s rights and things like that, but these things take place year round and we are just trying to amplify it.”

Wits’ silent protest is also taking place over three days. Next week Wednesday is the most active and visible of them all.

“Anybody who wants to participate in the protest can click on the link on the wits silent protest Facebook page. From there they will be asked to choose from a selection of three shirts that will be available on the day” said Leopeng.

Thesign up is free of charge, and allows you to choose a shirt saying either “solidarity”, “survivor” or “silenced.” Members that want to have their mouths taped can also take part in the taping ceremony. According to Leopengthis “symbolizes the silencing that takes place every day when it comes to rape survivors. They can also come to the CCDU, we have our own sign ups there.”

On the day sign-ups are also welcome but there is no guarantee of shirts.

Knowing the true mission behind the initiative is also key, said Leopeng. “Often people get confused and they think that a silent protest is about reporting rape and sexual violence but the thing is if you are going to be reporting it to police who are going to be shaming you”.

Try not to be a cow

August is women’s month, but for some reason women can’t help but tear each other down. 

Sreaming in silence: Women tear each other down behind closed doors for their own benefit. Photo Reuven Blignault.

Sreaming in silence: Women tear each other down behind closed doors for their own benefit. Photo Reuven Blignault.

Women have often been referred to as ‘cows’. This is not because of our lovely curves but mainly for our behaviour towards others.

Most woman in today’s society are very quick to stand up for women’s rights in the face of chauvinism, but those on social media and the world around us still think its ok for women to drag each other down.

History is riddled with women being demeaned in many ways, and slowly we fought back to receive the respect we deserve. Why is it then that women criticize other women or even participate in the phenomenon of slut shaming?

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Maybe degrading women has become a disease in our society. On more than one occasion I have heard of two women fighting and degrading each other, because they are involved with the same man. Yet the man who is in the middle of this, and is the one who two-timed both women, sneaks by and looks ‘innocent’.

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I walked around campus this week and asked 20 female Wits students questions about the subject. All the girls I spoke to admitted to having previously mocked and judged other women. The most popular responses when I asked what they mock them about were their style, how they behave, or even being ‘too confident’.

Too confident? When did it become ok for us to want women to take a back seat? Confidence is usually a trait that is celebrated but for some reason we don’t want our fellow women to own the pride that the many women before us fought for. But we should ask ourselves if the same confidence in a man would be reacted to in the same way.

By criticizing each other we are giving men permission to do the same. Why should they respect us when we cannot even respect each other?

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I know I am very guilty of this crime, and it is my belief that everyone is. But why do we do it? Is our self-images so fragile that we have to drag others down to make us feel better about ourselves?

This month is Women’s Month. Perhaps instead of dragging other women down we should try and use our energy to celebrate and uplift each other.

What does it matter if we don’t like to buy the same clothes or that some women have the confidence to go out and get what they want? History has proven time and time again, we are a stronger force united rather than divided.


The Spike” How to avoid it

Your drink can be spiked in a matter of seconds, but don’t be quick to assume you’re not a target.

NO DRINK IS SAFE: Any drink can get spiked in seconds. Photo: Valerie Robinson

NO DRINK IS SAFE: Any drink can get spiked in seconds.
Photo: Valerie Robinson

It’s a casual night out with friends sitting around the bonfire. Around 8pm and after only a drink or two, you go to the bar. That is the last thing you remember before waking up at 3am, on the floor in your garage with no memory of how you got there.

In the past drink spiking was usually known for date rape, but it has now become an easy way to commit robbery. The targets have also shifted as guys have now become victims of the act according to Campus Health counsellor Nicole Barnes.

Often guys get spiked with the use of eye drops that can be bought over the counter. After they are drugged, they are confronted in the bathrooms where their belongings are taken, including their car keys which the thieves use to drive off with the victim’s vehicle.

She went on to say that “this is a common occurrence amongst young people.”

Reiner Runge, chairperson of Wits’ local social club Silly Buggers said people have been spiked at events on campus in the past.

“I know there have been incidences, where two students accused us of spiking their drinks, they were two girls and one guy,” said Runge. This particular incident that he was referring to took place two years ago.

“We completely rejected the claim … There are thousands of students and we can’t control what people are doing with their drinks, obviously from our side we don’t endorse spiking anyone’s drink.”

Runge has also worked in as a bartender in Greenside, and accounts how he has witnessed students being spiked there. “We had cases in Greenside where students would come in and they would order a drink … They would get completely smashed, they would throw up and be really sick but it wasn’t an account of having too much alcohol, it was something else at play.”

George Hunter, the head bartender at Braam’s Anti Est., also said he is aware that spiking does happen but has never witnessed it first-hand.

The effects of being spiked can be varied based on many factors like your size, weight and the effects of other substance that you have ingested.

Spotting if you or a friend has been spiked is difficult because the drugs used often can’t be tasted, seen or smelled.

Some symptoms of drink spiking include feeling sick or sleepy, dizzy or faint, feeling really drunk or confused even if you have only had a little alcohol to drink, passing out, waking up feeling uncomfortable and disorientated, or having blank spots in your memory.

Runge recommends wary students go in pairs to go get a drink and always being vigilant.

“It’s very easy to put something in someone’s drink … Watch what the bartender is doing with his hands, if there is anything fizzy in your drink apart from the froth of a beer for example, hand it over and do not leave your drink unattended.”

If you think your drink might have been spiked it is important to see a doctor. Either a urine or blood test can be used within 24 hours to detect traces of certain drugs.

Politics students petition against pension

RETIRE OR NOT?: Gillian Renshaw (left) and Odwa Abraham in her offi ce at the Politics department. Photo: Valerie Robinson

RETIRE OR NOT?: Gillian Renshaw (left) and Odwa Abraham in her offi ce at the Politics department. Photo: Valerie Robinson

A popular secretary in the Politics department will be forced into retirement at this end month over the protests of students.

Odwa Abraham, a former politics student, said he and other students, along with a lecturer, started a petition to protest the compulsory retirement of secretary Gillian Renshaw.

Renshaw is being forced into retirement because she has reached the mandatory departure age for administrative staff of 65.

Abraham, who is now postgraduate LLB student, said the organisers of the petition were told their demand would be reviewed. However, they were never informed of the outcome of the petition.

“Our issue is here our [petition] was disregarded, it was ignored” said Abraham. “How does the university deal with such issues. What happens in the case where we students want the person to stay?”

He added that according to his knowledge there were two petitions. One started by the students which was signed by over 90% of the third-year politics class, and another by the lecturers and other staff members of the department.

The head of the Politics department, Prof Daryl Glaser, said Renshaw could continue in her job if the university allowed it.

“She’d be able and willing to continue if retirement rules allowed. The petition attests to her popularity,” Glaser said.

He said that an effort was to try and keep Renshaw but this only secured a few extra months after which the university insisted she retire. Renshaw’s contract ends at the end of this month, no replacement has been hired yet.

“She’d be able and willing to continue if retirement rules allowed. The petition attests to her popularity.”

Renshaw has been working for the Politics department since July 2009. She told Wits Vuvuzela that she was very flattered by the initiative.

She was not involved in organising the petition. However, she said that if the students were organising a petition, it must be done properly.

“If they were going to do it they must send it through the right channels,” Renshaw said.

She added that while the university has rules of retirement, she feels it should be an individual’s choice whether on not they want to stay on for another year.

Another former Politics student, Bheki Temba, said Renshaw does not only fulfil her administrative duties but supports the students academically and emotionally as well. She knows every student’s name from their first year. Temba said Renshaw even supported him when his grandfather passed away.

Abraham said Renshaw keeps the department going and would even advise students on which courses to take.

A posting for Renshaw’s job is advertised on Wits’ website with interviews for a replacement are already being set up.