The story behind The Suitableman started with a tie in primary school and ended with me being a fashionista. I went to a local school in Soweto where we wore very basic school uniforms: white or khaki shirt, black trousers and a school jersey. I was an average kid, both academically and at extra mural activities.
Although I passed my grades there were always kids doing better than me. I was pretty good at athletics, the 100 metre sprint and long jump, but that was about it! In soccer it was hard to make the team, not because I couldn’t play, but because the popular faces were usually chosen.
I did participate in the choir, traditional dancing and even the gumboot dancing, but I was never the lead singer or anything like that. Doing these activities was like community service, you did it to clear your name from the bad books. For me though, it was about something more. I was trying to find where my talents lay. It was like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code. I’m still searching!
Our school uniforms were so boring and ordinary that me and the bad boys decided to add something new. That’s when we introduced the idea of wearing a tie to school. Some of you will wonder what’s so special about that? Well, our school never had a tie until we introduced the idea. The ties we started wearing were our fathers, and in my case, I had to steal ones from my uncle. I knew they had sentimental value as they were hidden with all the important stuff.
The first Monday we met at the bus stop and all walked to school together. We made a serious statement that wasn’t lost on our schoolmates or the public. We normally stood at the back of the assembly queue in the mornings, trying to hide our faces from the principal, but this morning was different. He spotted us and it was the first time he smiled, even giving us a wink.
From then on, he introduced official school ties to our uniforms. Because we started the idea we were allowed to continue wearing our colorful ones. When we graduated we were given certificates for being the most improved students and it was a tremendous honor. After three years of “naughty records” we had cleared our names and left a legacy, something we’ll be remembered for.
I discovered golf in high school for the first time and it helped me develop a maturity to my dress code. Eish, it was an expensive sport! At home I was given R50 a week for taxi fare and a return trip cost R10, so I had no spare change. To earn money for golf I would walk to the “nearby” train station, ten kilometres away, to save R35 a week on transport. Saturday’s found me in the library studying and reading about golf.
When I was in Grade 10 I met the director of a golf club in Roodepoort and he offered me the use of the golf facilities in return for helping out and being his caddie. I never asked for renumeration, just his old golf clothes, shoes and clubs. This heralded a new era in dressing for me. I gave away all my denim jeans and only wore formal pants, chinos and golf shirts. I began receiving compliments from the elderly folk. It was inspiring for everyone to see a young black boy playing golf, one normally out of reach for a boy from Soweto. It inspired me to work even harder.
In high school I was given the nickname “Tiger,” after the golfing legend himself. I took the game seriously, despite being an average player. I made an effort to look good while I was playing. By this time I had finished a travel and tourism diploma and struggling to find a decent job. All I could find was a weekend job at Sportsman’s Warehouse as a golf specialist. I later got a permanent position as a golf shop assistant at Durban Deep Golf Club and then moved to Parkview Golf Club where I started to study golf as a profession.
During this time that I developed a more serious interest in fashion. When I got home in the evenings I would watch FTV and became fascinated by how influential fashion was. I had so many questions and nobody to ask, so I started attending all the Fashion Weeks around Johannesburg, trying to learn as much as I could. Gradually I started learning, mostly about dress code.
I started to embrace menswear, especially formal wear. I did my homework before each fashion week: what to wear, how to wear it and on which day. I took it so seriously that I never wore the same outfit twice, not even to different fashion events. I even had a back-up plan in case somebody was wearing something similar to me. I started attending every fashion week in South Africa, that required some serious brainstorming and creative thinking on my outfits as I couldn’t keep buying new clothes. My solution was to play with different combinations of suits and jackets; ties and pocket squares; shirts and vests; shoes and socks.
I had a devastating setback in 2013 when most of my wardrobe was stolen in a robbery. My attitude was: “You can steal a man’s wardrobe, but you’ll never take away his style.”
I made mistakes along the way but learned from them. Some of my earlier mistakes were over-accessorizing, the wrong size and fit, how to match and pair items and learning the difference between office wear and sartorial chic. I consulted the web and reviewed the history of sartorial suit wear around the world. Observing how this influenced local African sartorial aesthetics was interesting – from “globalization” to “glocalization”.
So this begs the question, what next? I still haven’t realized my full potential and talents yet. It’s an ongoing education that includes helping and assisting those around me who already have style. Until I get there, I’ll stay suitably sartorial.
Brian Lehang, The Suitableman, is a sartorial dresser based in Johannesburg. He’s in love with fashion, addicted to house music and a golf fanatic. Follow him on Twitter