Fashioning a new career out of old clothes

From 5am, serious traders wait on Noord Street in Johannesburg for the bales to be opened. The sun not yet risen, it is clear why this place was christened emnyama ndawo, the dark place. These are the New Age 49ers of Jo’burg and they use cellphone light to check for any tears, discolouring or irregularities.

A young Malawian is in charge of sales. His bales are filled with piles of a particular clothing item: one will be filled to the brim with tartan skirts and another with faux fur coats. Prices per item range between R10 and R80.

Strikingly dressed Nigerian bosses watch over the conduct of the men who interact with the shoppers. Once a certain amount of money is made a wad of cash is handed over to the bosses, whose booty at least quadruples the incoming amount. Here you cannot bargain and signs of chaos will result in an interruption of sales until order is restored.

As light breaks the scene relaxes. Maskanda, gospel and West African music saturates the air as each boom box battles for dominance. Hawkers of every possible commodity march the streets. There’s the call to buy from every bale owner, a looped recitation of the type and price of clothes on offer: “Lumber jackets R20! Lumber R20!”

The global trade of second-hand clothing remains a market anomaly. Few other industries obtain their raw material free of charge. Clothes that start off as charitable donations are sold off to exporters, pressed into bales and shipped to Africa in what has become a billion-dollar industry.

In 2006, Dan Chapman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declared that exports from the United States alone amounted to an annual turn-over of $1-billion. This figure does not take into account shipments from European countries such as the ­Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, which constitute the primary source of imports to South Africa.

Due to pressure from textile unions, South Africa has imposed restrictions on the importation of second-hand clothing. A trip to Noord Street, however, is enough to convince the most steeled policy zealots that these legislative measures are comically ineffectual.

Although the experience of kwa madunusa, isiZulu for bending over, is specific to Jo’burg, the scene plays itself out all across Africa. In Zambia it is known as salaula, Bemba for “selecting from a pile”, and in Kenya as mitumba, a Swahili word meaning “bundles”. Throughout the continent we dunusa, fashioning dreams from the discarded excess of the rich.

Godfrey Khumalo is one small tributary to this intricate delta of trade. Since 2005 Mgovango, as his friends call him, has run Giovino Mgovango Trapatoni’s Boutique from his family home in Orlando West Extension, Soweto. Khumalo trades in style, the one thing Soweto natives have in abundance. When shopping, he searches for high fashion or street brands such as Pringle, Timberland and Diesel and mixes them with eye-catching pieces.

His home is a buzzing hive of informal trade. The main three-room house and yard is a shebeen in which ol’ timers meet daily and commune over Joburg Beer, packaged in its white cartons decorated with a red city skyline. There are rooms in the backyard, one of which doubles as Khumalo’s bedroom and the site for GM Trapatoni’s.

Dressed in a crisp checked shirt, navy slacks and brown leather shoes, his hair freshly clipped, Khumalo shares his understanding of why he has more customers than clothes: “Clothes can make you feel small. People decide what you are worth because of what you are wearing. We say simizisa icrownless or sivala ihlazo — we’re closing the ­embarrassment.”

In the face of a diminished quality of life, the growing divide in income inequality and increased unemployment — the spawn of structural adjustment and fiscal restraint programmes implemented in the mid-1990s — Khumalo, against all odds, uses these clothes to construct a better life.

“In the ghetto, siyahlanganisa [we unite]. My friends are my customers. I choose the things they like and they support me. Because of these clothes I’m living my life. I’m free.”

Nomahlubi Mtimkhulu is a 25-year-old powerhouse with her own mobile clothing stall, Egonsthini, which translates as a largely unknown place where bargains can be found. She learned from an early age that her destiny would be of her own making.

Mtimkhulu’s mother died when she was still in high school. As a young adult she moved between Kagiso, where her sickly father is based, and Vosloorus, where her grandmother lives. At 19 she fell pregnant and decided to name her daughter Amogelang, a name instructing her family how to handle this unforeseen situation: accept it.

Dressing the part
Mtimkhulu is tiny. On some days you will find her in a short, woollen body-con dress by Metere deScotche — a brand of woollen wear that her business partner, Nametsegang “Ritchy” Goitsemodimo, designs and makes. The dress might be accessorised with bright pink stockings intentionally ripped and a teal mid-calf boot with a small heel. Her look is finished with the fur-lined hood of her satin paisley bomber jacket, which  covers a styled shaven head.

Mtimkhulu has felt the might of the city’s development drive. She moved to Berea in 2008, when she was able to get a year’s accommodation at a shelter. A beat poet with an eye for fashion, Mtimkhulu quickly realised that her survival lay in doing the things that no one wants to do — finding the things that everyone wants to have. She started taking African homeware goods that women at her shelter produced to sell at the Market Theatre.

Newtown and the Market Theatre have long stood as a beacon for multi-racial cultural activity and trade. The theatre was built on the Market auction ring — land that had historically been demarcated for mixed-race use. The seed of the idea that residents of the city could live freely was planted and the areas around the theatre began to mimic this premise. From this, the Jo’burg Market blossomed in Mary Fitzgerald Square in the 1980s.

In 2007 the City of Joburg adopted the inner-city regeneration charter that stated its aim as “reclaiming the inner city for the benefit of the citizens of Johannesburg”. The narrative growing in powerful circles and policy documents was that criminals had “hijacked” the inner city and intervention was needed to take it back. Newtown became a flagship project of the charter as the city set out to create a “world-class cultural precinct”.

It was at the lip of this transition from neglected home for the poor to cultural hub that Mtimkhulu entered Newtown. After a year her stall was generating income and she could afford to rent a shared room within walking distance of Newtown at the Salvation Army in Jo’burg central.

Her carefully chosen vintage treasures from an era when quality was the default were tailor-made for her creative clientele, who used the area as a convenient meeting and work space. Many of these customers would pass time between meetings relaxing with Mtimkhulu on her camping chairs and being part of a creative collective.

But on January 15 last year an age-old tradition came to an abrupt end when the sale of crafts was prohibited at the Market Theatre. For the city’s trendsetters, this was the final nail in the coffin of the ill-conceived Newtown cultural precinct.

“It was cruel,” said Mtimkhulu. “At some point they even sent in the ‘Red Ants’. The market was closing down, simply because they were building a mall and they were chasing all the people with the stalls away.”

The mall that Mtimkhulu refers to is part of the Jo’burg Development Agency’s R870-million development plan. The project, which has its projected completion date as late 2012, will include an amphitheatre, a gym, loft-style apartments, a boutique hotel and a cinema. But, four months before the projected delivery date, huge earthmoving machines are still burrowing into the bowels of the earth. In the distance, a solitary skateboarder ramps off pavements against a backdrop of peeling graffiti: tumbleweeds of what was once a creative hub. The rest of the creative vanguard had to scurry to find another location from which to live and work.

Kitchener’s Carvery Bar was one of the places that seemed to reinvent itself almost simultaneously with the demise of Newtown. The second-oldest pub in Jo’burg, it is located on the corner of Juta and De Beer streets in Braamfontein, a city improvement district. In its current incarnation, Kitchener’s nighttime weekend crowd consists of uber-trendy young people with seemingly large amounts of disposable income.

Original paintings of Lord Kitchener — the British solider credited for having built the world’s first concentration camp for women and children during the South African War — decorate the maroon brocade wallpaper.

When the Market shut down, Mtimkhulu found herself at Kitchener’s and pitched the idea to management that she use the venue to sell her vintage clothes. Every Thursday she sets up in the foyer of the club and transforms it into a display cabinet of vintage wear, hand-made accessories and the Metere deScotche woollen line. Once a month she throws her popular event, Style vs Sound, during which music is fused with fashion and Mtimkhulu invites other creative people to rent space for the night.

Artistic misfits
At Kitchener’s, potential clients approach the rails with the same sort of trepidation people exhibit when viewing the wares of street vendors. It is evident that their interest has been piqued, but they don’t want to be forced to buy. “It’s tough because people don’t come here expecting to see clothing and they don’t come budgeting for that. It’s a predominantly white club and you do get elements where you feel it’s the amazing South African rainbow nation, but not really.”

For the past two years, Jamakazi Thelejane and Sithembiso Mngadi’s vintage clothing shop, Fruitcake, has become a womb for artistic misfits. Located at the Fashion Kapitol at 130 Pritchard Street, the tiny shop is a sensory experience. Mngadi’s interior design background and Thelejane’s eccentric style ensure that all decor and aesthetics are carefully selected to facilitate time travel. Letta Mbuli busts attitude from a 1950s Drum magazine poster, music escapes from an old boom box and earrings for sale are pinned on records.

Mngadi, confident and calm, shares the role vintage clothing has played in his identity in a well-paced story that aptly dates back to the 1980s. As he speaks, the corners of his eyes crease in a way that hints at the memory of old jokes and debates.

He was born in KwaMashu, Durban. His grandparents, successful black entrepreneurs, raised him. Their faultless sense of style is in the foreground of every memory he conjures of them.

“Very often my grandfather had to interact with white people, and I think that a suit became a type of armour when doing battle with racism.”

In 2001, in an effort to gain access to the labour market, Mngadi volunteered for six months at a travel agency. For the next nine years he worked at various travel companies, but in 2009 the wave of economic meltdown crashed on his head and he was retrenched from his position as travel manager.

Mngadi went into survival mode. He lived in a tiny flat with a huge balcony on a Yeoville rooftop — the perfect spot for a party. He installed wooden rails on the balcony and stocked as many extraordinary vintage clothes as he could afford.

The night of the first rooftop party, Mngadi cooked and waited anxiously to see who would come. By the end of it he had made about R7 000, something that, despite many subsequent successful evenings, he was never able to repeat. But the experience convinced him of his ability to use his sense of style and work ethic as a way to sustain himself.

“I’ve embraced the spirit of vuka uzenzele: do it yourself, hustle anyway that you can. It’s tough in South Africa because resources are said to be available for entrepreneurs, but really you’re on your own,” Mngadi reflects.

With a cult following of vintage fiends in tow, in June 2010 he was introduced to Thelejane and the idea for Fruitcake was born. Three months later Fruitcake opened its doors.

“I choose an item based on style, quality and age,” he says. “My favourite eras are undoubtedly the 1960s and the 1970s. Also, I treasure the 1920s, which are a rare find.”

To keep the shop alive, Thelejane works for South African Airways and Mngadi as a fashion stylist. Thelejane mocks that having to wear a uniform to work must be punishment for the sins of a past life. One of the perks of this karmic purgatory, however, is discounted travel. And when travelling she takes the opportunity to rummage through thrift stores and returns with a suitcase of finds that are, by their nature, exempt from customs tax.

Thelejane, who has a copywriting diploma and studied at the Haute Couture School for Fashion in Cape Town, also runs her own label, Ujamkazi. The royal blue tutu and matching top she wears are her own and she completes her look with a wild volume of hair, platform heels, colourful beaded neckwear and rainbow-jewelled fashion earrings.

“I love that I buy an outfit for R50 and end up being the best-dressed person at an event where people spend thousands on their clothes,” she says.

Committed to the growth of young talent, Fruitcake employs inexperienced fashion fanatics as their shop assistants and give them an assignment and the opportunity to style the central store mannequin. They take photos of the exercise, upload them on the Fruitcake vintage Facebook page and, in so doing, build the portfolios of young stylists. “This is a space to empower young black people to also go out and be bold,” she says. “We’re growing the idea that we can offer opportunities to each other, instead of waiting for help that doesn’t look like its coming from outside.”

Taryn Mackay is the 2012 Anthony Sampson Foundation fellow for in-depth journalism

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