May '09
We seek out rising stars of design
On a recent and rare trip home to South Africa, I caught up with my longtime friend and fellow Johannesburg-New York transplant Albertus Swanepoel. I first knew Albertus in the late 80s as the designer behind the successful Quartus Manna label. With a deep love for his Afrikaans heritage and a healthy dose of irony, he created beautiful corsets out of protea-printed tea towels (protea is the national flower), among other kitschy fusions. I closely followed his move to New York, his challenging transition into millinery and his ability to maintain a strong bond with our homeland. Runner-up for the 2008 Vogue Fund Award, he has recently collaborated with top New York labels—Marc by Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, to name only a few—and is currently a nominee for the 2009 Swarovski CFDA Accessory Award. In our old stomping ground, we reminisced and marveled at his wild ride.


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So here we are!
Yes. It's incredibly strange yet wonderful for us both to be here again, in the same place at the same time after so many years.

How long has it been?
I've been away twenty years.

What brings you back this time?
I was invited by Sanlam SA Fashion Week to give lectures and seminars. One lecture was on craft and how international designers use it in their work. I also spoke about sustainable fashion and community-based companies like Project Alabama. The two days of seminars were with young designers, helping them with their lines.

Tell us about craft versus design here.
There are really great craft skills here in South Africa, like beading and embroidery. It's the heritage of all these different tribes. I am trying to teach designers how to make use of those skills and to better combine them. I want them to look more at details, to do more research and to find new ways in which they can use craft. We all have the same difficulties in a way. We all struggle to get good pattern-cutters and we have the same the problems with stores paying. It’s a global village in that sense.

Have you done this before?
Yes. Actually it’s my third time. In the past I gave millinery workshops, but you can't teach someone how to make hats in just six hours! It was very frustrating for me, as well as for them. So we decided this time I should do something more purposeful. I have also spoken to them about my own heritage and how I have used it in New York. I am a 9th-generation South African Afrikaner.

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Albertus Swanepoel Albertus Swanepoel

When did your family come to South Africa?
My father’s family came here in 1678 and they have been here ever since. I am deeply rooted in this country. The longer I’m away, the more nostalgic I get. I notice that I use more and more elements of local inspiration in my work in New York. I used to fight against it for years, but in the end it is a part of who I am. Now I embrace it.

You come back quite regularly, enough to register the progress that has been made here. Do you think its changing fast enough?
Obviously the country has changed tremendously since I left in ’89, before Apartheid was demolished. There is a huge social and cultural change here that I find very liberating. I only came out when I was forty, and I see these kids now and how open they are with their sexuality. South Africa has the most liberal constitution in the world, particularly in terms of gay people. I think how differently my life would have been if I had grown up now.

You have always had a strong link with South Africa, more than anyone I know. We all tried to shake it off. What is it that keeps you coming back?
There is a great energy in Johannesburg and great street fashion. I also go to the bush and Cape Town, where the nature is so beautiful.

How have you incorporated South African culture into your work?
I find fabrics here very inspiring, whether it’s schwe schwe fabrics that the local South African tribes use, or fabrics brought in from Mali. On Long Street in Cape Town there's a fabric store called Mali South with incredible hand-printed fabrics in amazing colors and designs. I bought a huge amount of them, which I incorporated into my summer collection. Barneys bought forty hats done exclusively in those fabrics. For winter it’s a bit tricky, but for summer I definitely tap into this kind of inspiration. I also use some of the local beading. I am working with a women’s community group to batik and hand-bead flowers for me.

There is a great African moment going on right now. The whole of Japanese Vogue for March was devoted to African Soul.
But I think you have to be outside of it to recognize what feels cool and appropriate again. I wanted to do a scarf line using all original fabrics and beading, but in the end they just looked too ethnic! I had hoped the outcome would be more like Dries Van Noten. So I still find it challenging to make things that look contemporary and wearable in New York, and not like something out of a Broadway musical.

I know exactly what you mean. I have been shopping for these fabrics again and I try to look at them with a fresh eye, yet I am also attracted to them from a place of nostalgia. I have tons of them, always with the intention of using them, but they just pile up. I love what Junya Watanabe did with them for his spring collection.
Yes, African prints still have such potential that no one has tapped into yet. I have been using them for hats. If used correctly they can look modern.

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Albertus Swanepoel Albertus Swanepoel Albertus Swanepoel

Is there a fashion identity in South Africa?
To be honest, it's just not there. I think South Africans have to stop trying to compete internationally, because geographically it's just too far away to export. And they work in different seasons. When it's summer here it's winter there. So what they need to focus on is a South African identity, but doesn’t look like a scene out of The Lion King!

What about the schools?
Sadly there aren’t good design schools anymore, so people don’t learn how to cut properly. And they don’t have access to good fabrics. They only have one store for European fabrics. When I lived here there was a choice of stores and great resources for Swiss or French fabrics, but now it’s very challenging for designers to get basic stuff. Also I think they need to challenge themselves more by doing the research, examining vintage clothing and traveling. The established designers here live in little ivory towers, driving their Mercedes Benzes, but they don’t travel. They don’t look at Comme des Garçons or at any intelligent European or American designers. There is an incredible lack of interest in anything other than themselves, which I find frustrating.

It's a kind of arrogance.
Yeah, an incredible arrogance. And I suppose I was the same when I was a "famous" designer here in the 80s. I had the same kind of arrogance, which was quickly shattered when I moved to New York. I gladly called myself a couturier, but didn’t have a clue what real couture was. I still see people doing that now, calling themselves all these things and they have no idea what it really means. They think they are on a par with the rest of the world, but they have no idea how far behind they are. There are pockets of creativity and insane potential, but South African fashion is just not on the map. Yet they make an incredible effort. All things considered, there is an incredible positivity, a desire to be great.

Are there any new designers here in South Africa doing millinery?
No, there is nothing here. I think Dolly, the last of them, passed away. It’s strange actually, what with the extreme sun, you would think there would be more. (con't)

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