Phindile Thengeni is a rare breed of creative whose path into fashion styling has seen her ruffle some feathers with her brave approach to aesthetic and subject matter. Launching her fashion styling career through her controversial Instabitions (exhibitions held on Instagram) aptly titled Does This Suit Me, her breakout work confronts gender and style politics whilst challenging conventional thinking about conventional gallery spaces in the age of social media. She shares her journey so far.
Who is Phindile?
Phindile is a paradox to say the least. Coming from a small town in the Free State, she can easily go from the calmest, sweetest, most considerate, caring, humble person to a fearless, risk taking, outgoing, life-of-the-party, super confident, rigidly independent person. I have always possessed a very highly creative brain that has had my imagination running wild throughout my life. I enjoy solving creative problems and this hasn’t always been clear to me. Thus said I’ve found myself morphing into different career paths and doing things of different variations to now find myself here.
I came to Joburg when Little Dragon came to perform and I just never left. Having studied Graphic Design at a Damelin in Joburg previously, I was familiar with the type of scene I enjoyed, down town, dungeon vibes. Graphics wasn’t what I ended up wanting to pursue once I was done with it so I looked for a part time job in Braamfontein. The last door I knocked at was at a pop up store called Staad where I was given a break by the awesome Tasha Baxter. Eventually I found myself working at a restaurant called Daleah’s still in Braam and by that time I was already living in Braamfontein. From there I found myself being the very first intern at the Jana+Koos agency, and before I knew it, I was in the world of fashion.
So I think that short story kind of sums up who Phindile is for me. A fucken’ paradox which always gives itself room to change and transform and tell different stories.
When did you realize that you want to have a career in the arts?
I realized that I wanted to have a career in the arts very late in life. A year or so after high school; I met a boy and we had the most beautiful relationship I’ve ever been in. At that time I was studying Business Management and knew nothing about the Arts. Having been with him he introduced me to books and mags such as One Small Seed at the time and made me listen to music such as Little Dragon and made me watch movies and Anime. He told and taught me of all these artistic things that one could study and the things that people are doing with art locally and internationally. Within months I came to Joburg to study Graphic Design. That on its own opened my eyes to things I could naturally do. Learning about colour and alignment, imagining something and being able to create in any kind of medium and whether it’s perfect or abstract was a world I felt as though I was born for.
From then on I’ve been like a snow ball…
Who have been your main influences in style and fashion?
My very own personal influences in fashion have been my grandparents. Both my grandmothers made their own clothes, in fact the one still sews until this very day. My mother has been the craziest fashion trend setter and spotter I’ve ever known. She was rocking PU leather leggings around 2010, I remember she bought me a pair and I wore them and people looked at me like I was crazy. A couple of years down everyone was wearing them and guess who was laughing then…
Having grown up in a family of women and with every generation having been as stylish as the last, fashion has been the most natural talent that I have had. I’ve never conformed, I have always bought the ugliest things in the store, and this is according to my friends. And thanks to my mother I’ve had the niche to like things that people only catch onto way later. Beyond and above all that my people are my daily influences, o-mama bethu, o-anti, o-sisi bethu, everyday black people always influence my style.
Do you have a particular philosophy and process to your work?
In terms of a philosophy or a process that I have to my work there’s one… “IF I KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL, IT IS THAT I KNOW NOTHING AT ALL”…
Even when working with anyone, my attitude isn’t that I know everything… I’m working with the next person to learn from them and for them to learn from me and to also allow them to be as creatively free as I often get to be in environments that I don’t feel under pressure to compare myself to the next artist.
Tell us about how the idea for your recent Instabitions “Does this suit me” came about?
The idea for my Instabitions came like breathing comes to any of us. I needed a platform to establish myself as a stylist using what I had and as such I was coming across problems such as female stylists not wanting to work with me and the male stylists wanting to take me to bed to get a gig. Following the form of putting my work in a gallery was also an idea but the process was going to take too long for me. So I figured that I had social platforms that could take a click of a button and my friends would get to share with their friends and I could kick the fashion world with a bit of a different bang, not just a bang you know. Liam Lynch and I had already spoken about this idea ages before, he suggested Andile Biyana and we shot and posted… and the rest is the future, not history as they say.
What are the main challenges you face when trying to bring such an idea to life?
Funny enough I didn’t come across any challenges; some things are that easy especially when they have a natural flair to them.
What has been the general feedback to your work, and how will you use it going forward?
The feedback has been so amazing I can’t lie to you. I still have people talking to me about it till this day. People have had so many different opinions, most of them being positive and loving the work and how I presented it and how it looked. Going forward there will be Instabitions every last Friday of every month on my Instagram handle. They will all be covering the different elements of style, particular styles that people have, perceptions and stereotypes that are associated with different kinds of styles. The bulk of the Instabitions will be collaborations with other stylists and people who are in the fashion world, be it a jewellery designer or shoe maker etc.
What is your opinion on the state of fashion in South Africa? How much of the work you see here is really new and avant garde?
The fashion state currently in SA is like an open gate. Pretty much anyone can do anything. But personally, it’s those that have the flair, the eye for detail, balance, tone, and understanding that stick out or have a better chance of surviving this fashion flood. I see very little avant garde work to be honest, especially in SA, very few people are brave enough to take absolute risks and get that formula right. A lot of the work is sloppy and much copied; it doesn’t really tell our story as current South Africa.
What have been the biggest achievements in your career so far?
I don’t really rate my work in achievements because I constantly just do, it’s either the mission was successful or it was a fail. I have had a few fails and many successes, the Instabitions for one, having worked with an international brand/company doing look books and social media and styling for them, STR.CRD 2014, having met all the people I’ve come to meet, creating and selling clothes with my friends… I’ve done a lot!
Any collaboration you’re interested on doing in the near future?
I don’t have a specific ideal person to collaborate with locally because in all honesty they are all in my reach and they will happen as the Instabitions grow and have momentum and become something that people either want to be part of or do it themselves. Internationally I’d love to collaborate with the guys from WESC, HBA, ACF, Nag People, Acne – and these are just a few fashion brands. There’s a book list of stylists, jewellery designers and models that I’d love to work with. Coming back to the local scene, I’m open to work if we vibe you know…
Any other hidden talents we don’t know about away from fashion?
My boyfriend and I do furniture. We design and upholster our own furniture. Dokter and Misses have competition coming their way. I will be doing the new interior for Curiosity Backpackers in Maboneng from 2015, we will be having an installation with our stuff next year as well and we are designing furniture for some people I can’t mention right now. I write songs and sing them as well, well everybody says I can sing but I think they’re all just trying to be nice you know. I’m all round talented; I just mentioned what I’m currently busy with, haha.
How can we keep up with your latest work?
Just follow me on Instagram @just_jpegphindi for the Instabitions. As of next year, there will be a proper website that people can catch the work that me and my boyfriend have produced so far and will continue to do in the future. All my friends are putting social pressure on me to open up a blog… urggghhh… that will also come out as of 2015.
Photographer | Liam Lynch
Stylists | Phindile and Andile Biyana from Khumbula