Subversion and re-appropriation of menswear form part of their design language

Words: Zanele Kumalo, Images: Anthony Bila, Andile Buka, Hanro Havenga

Darting in and out of fabric stores, secondhand consignments, makeshift workshops and home, a keen lens and weak winter sun follow two dapper young men. They use the city as their creative lab, thrifting this, trying on that as they rummage through bales of sartorial canvas. Self-styled in reconstructed and reimagined garments, the Sartists are not a stylist crew. Nor is this a street style shoot. Says the most outspoken of the group, Wanda LePhoto, “This has always been the way we dress; this is who we are even when there is no camera in front of us. For us, this is the way we live, these are our lives. It’s not a lifestyle we lead on weekends for social appearance, appeal or to create a certain perception.”

Since their early teens, he and his quieter business partner and friend Kabelo Kungwane have been pounding the pavements of Joburg together, acquiring old suits and other clothing items to unstitch, customise and reincarnate into bespoke pieces to wear as their own or share with others.

Now a fashion student at Johannesburg’s London International School of Fashion, LePhoto and journalism student Kungwane are 22 years old and run a brand collective called the Sartists. Together with art director and illustrator Xzavier Zulu, they offer a styling and consultation service for mens- and sportswear labels as one of their services. As part of their daily hustle, they also work and engage with some of the most exciting tastemakers in Joburg and the world, including the photographer of this series, Hanro Havenga, dancer Manthe Ribane, US collective Art Comes First (ACF), creative Tony Gum, photographer Andile Buka and designer Lazi Greiispaces.

Their subversion and re-appropriation of menswear forms part of a design language whose idiosyncracies have caught the attention of a number of global companies looking to appeal to urban youth culture in South Africa. Levi’s, Adidas and Coca-Cola have all collaborated with the Sartists for local brand campaigns.

“Besides the Coca-Cola advert, we’ve been featured in documentaries such as Black Dandy, which aired recently in France, GQ magazine twice for 30 Under 30 Most Influential Creatives and 50 Best Dressed Men in South Africa. We’ve also been featured in the Brooklyn Circus (US) and Modern Weekly (Japan) as well as The Sartorialist (US), to name a few.”

Adidas Originals brand manager Keagan Green says of them, “The Sartists are very important because of what they’re doing in terms of culture and fashion. They’re not afraid to step out their comfort zones — if they can think it, they can make it. For example, they made a sandal out of old denim and customise their suit jackets and formal pants by adding three stripes, worn with socks and slides.”

Havenga adds that on and off duty, “Their uniqueness as a strong, driven entity of creation, and at the same time being modest, hard-working individuals who really go the extra mile to get people what they want or need” is why everyone wants to work with them.

Says Kungwane: “Here in Joburg, everyone is a stylist. We want to do better things and don’t want to be like everyone else. What sets us apart is that everything we choose is high quality and well-executed.”

LePhoto quotes Brooklyn-based artist Kevin Lyons: “My cultural references are better than your cultural references”. The Sartists have built an archive of references that inspire them. It holds South African prison uniforms that have been customised and branded with logos such as Nike, Lacoste and Adidas, as well as current and past subcultures, the personal style of everyday commuters in the CBD, the sartorial history of township life or a singular item of clothing or fabric.

“We’ve studied what has come before us and taken what we needed. We’ve learnt the rules and we’re learning how to break them,” says LePhoto. “I don’t think there’s one thing that has inspired us to do this, it’s just in our code to do it. We want to create as much as possible, and possibly create a brand that will change how we as a people think.”

Kungwane hopes to become a fashion writer to educate people about fashion. “How things are made is really important. People don’t respect the creative process and the way fabrics are made and then constructed. I am anti fast-fashion, believe in the crafting of garments that will last forever, and quality design.”

Together with the rest of the collective, he would like to establish a clothing line in the near future. “There are manufacturing challenges in South Africa and we are still working on collaborations with other brands as well as building up connections. Right now, we are not ready, but we will be soon.”

A 10-year plan includes LePhoto “consulting for some of the world’s biggest brands, working with some of the world’s genius minds and becoming both”. Kungwane adds, “We will own Sartists stores that’ll have our clothing line and brands that we really admire, such as The Brooklyn Circus, ACF, Stussy, Carharrt, Adidas, Levi’s, Supreme — there’s so many. And also collaborating to create furniture, fashion films and other things.”

As Dirty Paraffin plays over the sounds of a whirring sewing machine they talk of travel to the US, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and African countries. Keep an eye out for them there too.

The Sartists were featured in Ogojiii issue 1.

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