In a world renowned for superficiality, Gert-Johan Coetzee's down-to-earth qualities set him apart.
In his 1995-1996 collection titled Highland Rape, the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen made, as his 2010 obit in the New York Times said, “a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England”, referring to the Jacobite Risings of the 18th century and the 19th-century Highland Clearances. “The models appeared to be brutalised, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque lenses.”
As he said at the time: “Nicey, nicey doesn’t do it for me.”
American Marxist blogger Louis Proyect said about McQueen’s designs: “This mixture of beauty and decay is what might be expected from a social system that is on its last legs.”
Fashion historian Ulrich Lehmann points out in his book Tigersprung that fashion does not just reflect social change, but is also a social force in its own right. Mary Quant achieved that with the miniskirt in the 1960s: “I didn’t think of the mini as sexual but as an instrument of liberation.”
In South Africa, McQueen’s contradictions and Lehmann’s slightly overstated social change assertion are perhaps best illuminated and, at the same time, even dispelled at Johannesburg’s Jeppe Hostel where, on a Saturday night, a group of mainly rural working-class men has a fashion show late into the night. Called the “Swankas”, these guys dress up in their finest expensive suits, ties, matching socks and shiny shoes to see who is the swankiest on the night.
I went to one of these shows in the early 2000s and, yes, there was some of McQueen’s decay, but in the venue rather than in the perfectly stylised outfits. A contrasting beauty, for sure.
In some way it reflected the social change, self-confidence and pride that came with democracy, but also the social malaise in that most of those men still lived in the dreaded single-sex hostels several years into democracy. Of a social force there wasn’t much of a sign.
But on the night, at least, nicey, nicey did it for these men.
One of South Africa’s finest young designers and a superstar in the making, Gert-Johan Coetzee (24) is probably closer to the Swankas. His dresses liberate South African women from all backgrounds, classes and races, even if it is just one night at a time.
But Coetzee, who is simply one of the nicest people you can hope to meet, will probably blush at such praise.
Making people feel good
“My brand is about lights, cameras, red carpets, celebrities, Hollywood — and that is what a person should feel like when she is wearing a Gert dress,” he says at his office-studio in Greenside, Johannesburg. “That is why, I think, people come to me: they want to feel like a star, a princess; they want to feel good.”
Coetzee has had a feel-fantastic year so far: two exceptional local fashion weeks, one in Vancouver, a deal with a major fashion retailer and stacks of celebrities (Tamara Dey, Basetsane Khumalo and Lira) wearing his outfits. He seems on track to achieve his goal: “An international fashion superstar — that’s what I am aiming for.”
More interesting for me, though, is his unpublicised secondary projects, which seem as important as designing dresses for part-time princesses.
One is providing dresses for deserving matric girls “who want to look nice for their farewell but who can’t afford it”.
“They approach us. If we don’t have anything already, we make something for them. We also arrange skincare, nail polish, haircare and make-up sponsors. We try to make their day as best as possible. This year we did three. One dad sent us a letter from prison. He said he screwed up his life, he murdered someone, he feels bad because his daughter wants a beautiful dress but he can’t [give it to her], would we be able to help him?
“My assistant … when I walked into the office, I asked her why are you crying and she said check this letter … We gave her a very exclusive, very high-end matric dress and she looked smashing in it.”
Why do you do it? “It’s, why can you not do it? If there are people in need and you have so many dresses, it is really not going to take anything from me.”
Coetzee understands the importance of having a mentor in this tough industry. His has been TV personality Sandy Ngema, who helped to give him his big break when she asked him to dress her for the show Strictly Come Dancing.
He has also become involved in Botswana Fashion Week. “I’m soon getting a student from Botswana to do a three-month internship with me. I’ve helped out designers from Tanzania.”
Coetzee has sponsored a R104 000-a-year fashion design student for the past three years at his alma mater, the North West School of Design. The deadline for applicants for next year is at the end of this month and he’s expecting 500 applications.
And he is a passionate ambassador for South African fashion: “Whenever I travel I make people aware I’m not the only one from South Africa. There’s a bunch of us that’s very good.”
His muse and the face of his fashion label is broadcaster and social media idol Bonang Matheba. “She’s a great role model for young girls out there; she’s beautiful, everything works on her and she is fun to work with.”
There is something post-racial about him, but in the most unaffected and non-deliberate way.
During the recent fashion weeks in Johannesburg, he used Thando Hopa (23), a young lawyer with albinism, as a model.
“I was walking in Cresta Mall with my family. When I saw Thando I saw my whole collection just walk past me! I thought this is it — I stopped her and gave her my card.
“She didn’t want to, but after doing a bit of research on me she phoned me back and said: ‘Gert, I’ve been approached many times for things like this, but this one feels right so let’s do it.’ ”
It was a mutual learning experience. Coetzee taught Hopa about modelling; she taught him something about life.
“Getting to know Thando, I referred to her as an albino. She corrected me and said it’s like her referring to me as a white or a gay — it is a very harsh, inappropriate term. She taught me and educated me on albinism.”
The two of them are in the process of getting a company to distribute sunscreen to people with albinism in the rural areas where skin diseases and stigma are prevalent. “Our first approach is to try to break that stigma. There’s nothing wrong with them. Thando explained to me that, as a girl, she knew she was different because there was no one who looked like her — she didn’t understand it.
“She wants to be that role model for that little girl with albinism, who is not understanding why she is not looking like anybody else, to help her to understand what she is growing into — and with Thando there she is such a positive reinforcement.”
Coetzee fell in love with fashion as a little boy. “I used to play dress up with my sister’s dolls with paper napkins.”
His dad is a farmer-businessperson and his mom a physiotherapist in Rustenburg, North West.
“I’ve got the most amazing parents — my mom is the most supportive person … My dad is the one who says it’s okay to be different, make your hair bigger, use more colour — he’s the one who is egging me on.”
And doesn’t he just listen. “The hair is an inspiration somewhere between Johnny Bravo, James Dean and Elvis. I just love all those style icons — I just had to chuck it together and create one big quiff. The hair always changes; the hair has been blue, the hair has been smaller ... I’m feeling bigger now, so I’m growing it bigger. For me, it’s if my hair is with me, I have my briefcase with me, I feel more confident.”
It looks as if he needs patience and a degree in teasing?
“It’s a mission. Luckily I’m a bit spoilt — I’ve got hairdressers who come here twice a week and they just help me with it. If I do it myself, it takes about an hour. It is hair spray and teasing; it is magic.”
His life partner, Vicky Visagie, is his label’s brand manager. “We met when I was 16 — it was love at first sight. We moved in together and that was eight years ago.”
Coetzee says he doesn’t have weekends. “We work Monday to Sunday —there are gaps in between, but every day there is something.”
How does he deal with precious celebrities?
“Tantrums I used to deal with; now I don’t any more. If you piss me off, you’re out of here. I don’t work with difficult people at all. Fashion is fun and fashion is beautiful — if you’re not beautiful inside and you’re not fun to work with, sorry.”