Mid-last year New York based fashion designer Jenny Lai came across a number of photographs online taken by South African photographer and filmmaker Chris Saunders. Excited by the expressive originality in his vibrant images of style collective The Smarteez, and Pantsula dance crews in costume, Jenny contacted Chris. ‘NOT x Chris Saunders’ is the result of her reaching out: a cross-cultural, collaborative project spanning disciplines and involving seven different creatives working in the field of fashion.
The framework for the project was developed by Jenny and Chris over Skype with the overarching goal to explore the process of cross border collaborations as well as to showcase the distinct people, places, and processes that make South African fashion unique. Earlier this year Jenny visited South Africa to set the project in motion. During intensive one to two week sessions each, she collaborated with four local creatives – Dennis Chuene, Dr Pachanga, Floyd Avenue and Macdonald Mfolo – who were each invited to re-interpret one of Jenny’s existing designs in their own style and in the context of what they make.
Their unique creations became costumes worn by a further collaborator, Manthe Ribane, in a choreographed performance photographed by Chris in Johannesburg.
The entire process has been documented by Chris in images we will be sharing over the next few weeks, and in video clips and written updates found at notxcs.tumblr.com.
Meet the artists:
Dennis Chuene is the designer behind Vernac Bags for which he takes apart ubiquitous, checkered, plastic ‘China’ carry-alls to make stylish and functional backpacks. Although the “China bag” is deeply imprinted into the South African landscape, it actually comes from a mélange of cultures – the traditional tartan print from Scotland, the nylon bag mass-produced in China – and is known to several different cultures; as “Ghana must go” bags in Nigeria, “Chinatown totes” in the United States, “Bangladeshi bags” in the United Kingdom, and “Turkish suitcases” in Germany. After deconstructing the “China Bags”, Jenny and Dennis recreated a garment based on Jenny’s Interlock Coat design, with respect to the details of the original bag.
Dr Pachanga, or Jean Rene Onyagunga, is a second-hand clothing merchant in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Given that second-hand clothing accounts for over 50% of the clothing sector in many Sub-Saharan African countries, this industry is a significant one. This collaboration took Dr Pachanga and Jenny around to several second-hand sources found in the Johannesburg CBD including Piles in Joubert Park, an area where hundreds of traders take over Plein Street daily. The two rummaged through heaps of garments to curate a selection of clothing that was, hypothetically, made in China, worn in the United States, and rediscovered in South Africa to be disassembled and then reassembled with a local tailor into a one-of-a-kind garment based on Jenny’s Overlap Dress.
Floyd Avenue is a menswear clothing and hat designer and member of The Smarteez, a DIY fashion collective from Soweto that has already gained international recognition. He was chosen for this project based on his intuition for a uniquely South African street style that seems to finally be emerging from a post-apartheid generation. Jenny and Floyd created their new collaborative outfit together in Floyd’s backyard studio in Dobsonville, Soweto, getting inspiration from their surroundings.
Macdonald Mfolo is a costume designer and puppet maker from Orange Farm, a township south of Johannesburg, known for his forward thinking performance-wear for the Real Action Pantsula dance group. In 2010, he worked with the French puppet company ‘Les Grandes Personnes’ and the French Institute of South Africa to create a larger-than-life puppet show that toured throughout South Africa. Drawing from his unique skills and processes, Macdonald’s collab with Jenny fuses craftsmanship, theatre, and dance at large scale.
Bringing additional personality to each of these creations is dancer and model from Johannesburg Manthe Ribane who expressed the story of each through movement captured in photographs and video by Chris. Manthe is a former member of V.I.N.T.A.G.E dance crew, has toured as a dancer internationally with Die Antwoord and will be doing so again this summer in the USA.
The ‘NOT x Chris Saunders’ project will culminate in an exhibition of these photographs, the final garments themselves and process documents in New York City on the 11th of September.
More about Jenny Lai and NOT:
Jenny Lai, alumni of Rhode Island School of Design, has traveled around the world to explore the fashion design industry from different angles, including Rwanda, Amsterdam, Mexico City, and New York. She started her womenswear brand ‘NOT’ in 2011 in New York City and is currently in her 5th season. In addition to the ready-to-wear label, she also designs custom performance-wear for musicians and dancers that are pushing the boundaries of interdisciplinary performance.
More about Chris Saunders:
Chris Saunders is a South African born photographer and filmmaker from Johannesburg. His work is multidisciplinary and includes documentary projects as well as commercial endeavours. In 2010, he won Fabrica’s year long grant at Benetton’s Creative Research Facility in Italy, where he researched and helped produce two issues of Colors magazine and worked on various video and photo projects for United Colors of Benetton and Fabrica. He has also worked for some of the world’s top editorial and advertising clients. Chris’s documentary work is mainly focused on original sub-cultures of South Africa such as Pantsula, Izikhotane, and Shangaan Electro.