Streetwear’s next step

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What started out as a Los Angeles skate and surf subculture style is now a globally understood and coveted fashion discourse. This is how South African labels, birthed from the streetwear boom, are operating and thinking about the future.

The designers behind South Africa’s favourite streetwear brands feel disconnected from the term. “I’ve tried to stay away from it,” says Sol-Sol’s Mathew Keiser, basking in the winter sun outside his Orphan Street Clothing Store (OSCS). Keiser feels that the categories typically associated with streetwear (graphic tees, hoodies, caps) don’t do the nuances of his label justice. They certainly don’t account for Good Good Good’s humorous, lavishly oversized leisure-centric menswear, or the formality with which Wanda Lephoto approaches his modern take on smart casual.

Still, streetwear is the category from which these brands have chosen to pivot, the context from which they were born. In South Africa you can trace that history back 15 years to Anthony Smith’s 2Bop, the arcade-aesthetic streetwear label that has been a constant throughout the movement’s rise to local credibility and profitability. Over this period, the effects of streetwear’s mainstream buying power can be seen at any local market in the way retail space for surf and skate brands has given way to sneaker stores and sport-brand ready-to-wear department stores. Through it all, local brands like 2Bop have always been the most honest expression of streetwear: small businesses forged with a brave entrepreneurial spirit, and built around a South African-specific subculture while still en- compassing an echo of the international zeitgeist.

Daniel Sher’s Good Good Good must be the friendliest streetwear label of them all, reliably conjur-ing a jovial mood at Menswear Week with an eccentric cast of models who twerk, smoke, and glide down the runway on a Segway. Munching a generously filled chicken mayo sandwich with gherkins outside a cafe in Sea Point, Cape Town, Sher muses on an appropriate contemporary definition of streetwear. “In a word it’s probably hype,” he concludes. “That’s what streetwear is to me.”

That hype used to manifest frantically in the ‘Corner Store slot’ at SA Menswear Week around 2017 when attendance would triple due to 2Bop, Sol-Sol and Young and Lazy fans rolling (often on a skateboard) into the venue to see their friends walk the runway and make subliminal new-season shopping lists. Corner Store, the Woodstock streetwear haven which housed that holy trinity of brands from 2016 to 2018 was a brick and mortar manifestation of streetwear’s local hype, echoing the booming global market. The energy, both in store and at fashion week, felt significant because there was a sense of authenticity around the way the clothing was worn, both by the ‘real people’ friends-of-the-brand runway models, and by their friends on the sidelines. No other genre of local design was or is as intrinsic to a group of young customers.

That said, even this climate has not been fruitful enough for designers to rely on their brands as a full-time income. Good Good Good is cleverly integrated into Daniel’s wife and mother in law’s CMT factory which primarily makes clothing for major local retailers. Keiser who has a job (sepa- rate from both Sol-Sol and his OSCS store) in local retail says, “I think there’s a freedom when it doesn’t need to be paying all my bills. But you could also call it a cop out I guess. It does become easy to blame whatever on being too busy with the real job.” All the while, Sol-Sol’s credentials, including but not limited to collaborations with Levi’s, Woolworths, and international stockists suggest Keiser has managed to create a thriving job-job balance.

Wanda Lephoto’s presence as one of Woolworths’ Style by SA brands (both in store and on the runway) belies the fledgling scale of his brand. When Lephoto launched in 2016 as part of Merge ZA, a showroom that took five local brands to London Fashion Week, he was working in advertis- ing full time. Today he manages his own version of the work-work balance, putting as much into his brand as possible while continuing to consult for advertising agencies. A small edit of Lephoto pieces are available at Woolworths and OSCS. For anything else, you can DM his instagram ac- count.

Chatting via video call, Lephoto makes it clear he won’t stock stores on a larger scale until he has the necessary grasp on manufacturing infrastructure necessary to fulfil those types of orders. (You need only skim his runway images to understand the man is a perfectionist.) “What I’m interested in besides the selling is consumer education,” says Lephoto. “Teaching people about a rich history that is often under-celebrated. That’s what I try to do through my designs.”

The South African market, though small, is not without its benefits. Good Good Good is evolving away from the traditional definition of streetwear, using richer, more sustainably sourced fabrics. Sher has been using Collective (formerly AKJP Collective) in Kloof Street as a soundboard for his higher-priced offering: “It’s a nice place for me to test product, sell product, and grow the brand,” he says.

“We’re obviously doing something right,” says Keiser, referring to OSCS which stocks an assort- ment of streetwear labels including Sol-Sol and its womenswear counterpart Maylee. “I mean, we’ll sell a parka to a 45-year-old guy working in De Waterkant at an agency and sell the same parka to a 17-year-old kid riding his BMX down in Soweto. Data’s obviously extremely important with brands and selling stuff, but I think we’re operating on too small a scale for it to really influence what we do. Our South African customer is a South African.”

Sher is working to expand his portfolio of international stockists, building up to a point where his label can be the predominant breadwinner of the family CMT factory. Good Good Good and Sol- Sol already have a number of international stockists, concentrated mainly in Japan. This is made possible for both brands by working with showrooms that act as brand consultants, showing their collections at major global events like New York and Paris Fashion Week. “Most importantly,” says Sher, “they have relationships with buyers. The hardest thing to do is build a relationship with the store, even once you’ve made the sale.”

Streetwear’s move from subculture to mainstream presents it with an existential crisis, chipping away at its cool factor and blurring the lines that originally defined it. Designers with modern streetwear brands (regardless of whether or not they place themselves in that category) must devel- op a new strategy to connect with customers in order to ensure longevity.

Lephoto emphasises the importance of building relationships with customers. Going forward, brands will need to be “emotionally connected to who you are as a person, to what you believe, and the way you see the world.” For him, that’s meant reflecting significant yet overlooked elements of everyday South African life in his designs. One of his best sellers, a t shirt with a barber shop beard style print on the front and menu on the back does just that.

In the current fashion climate, where increasing reports surface warning of a streetwear bubble burst, these designers’ willingness to push their aesthetic to a place beyond streetwear should work to further forge their idiosyncratic identities, thereby pushing them ahead from streetwear’s now mainstream status into a yet-to-be-defined category one might think of for now as ‘New Look streetwear’. If there’s one thing that unites Sol-Sol, Good Good Good and Wanda Lephoto apart from their (post) streetwear context, it’s the way each brand feels genuinely personal. No doubt that quality will sustain them regardless of fashion context.

By Daniël Geldenhuys

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