Black Renaissance | Wanda Lephoto Is Reclaiming A People’s Truth

The South African Fashion designer peels back the layers of the country’s colonial history to inform the creative thrust of his eponymous brand.

by Enrica Picarelli - Published on 10/06/2021
Wanda Lephoto, Black Renaissance A/W21 collecction. All images by Art Verrips. COURTESY

Wanda Lephoto is one of the creatives animating the contemporary South African fashion scene. Since his days as a member of the art duo “The Sartists”, his mission has been to reveal under-represented stories of Black South Africans, using style as a platform to speak about race, progress, and healing. In this conversation, he expands on this vision and tells us how it inspired his AW2021 collection Black Reinassance

Please, introduce yourself and your brand.

I’m founder and creative director of the Johannesburg-based brand Wanda Lephoto, and a free-lance creative director and consultant for agencies and commercial brands. My vision is to communicate real things that happen in real time to real people that often go unnoticed. I want to create an archive of work for future generations to tap into that represents African people in a manner that they haven’t been represented before, but also in a manner that begins to heal. In South Africa, there aren’t any archives of Black creativity and Black people that come from my background to draw inspiration from. I lean into this gap through a visual language that is based on truth, but that is also aesthetically pleasing, educational, and academic.

How does fashion fit into this vision?

Fashion, for me, is the most accessible medium, because one can get hand-me-down items from their parents that mean so much. One can wear and embody a piece of clothing in a way that people appreciate. From an aesthetic, storytelling, and creative point of view, I am  interested in fashion purely because it is the easiest format with which to tell my people’s , and my own truth. Through clothes, I communicate how I see the experiences of South African Black men, or women, from fifty years ago. I create from the standpoint of the limited wardrobe that of that context to reflect on that person’s truth. But now I am also moving to other places that incorporate different elements of art and design.

What are your references?

There are little to no archives, but I am interested in the idea of cultural fusion and that is one of my inspirations. I ask myself: what would a traditional, very tribal South African tribe look like if they fused who they are with the Western world in which we live in? How can we take photos of Black people shot in the 1960s and make them look like a streetwear campaign? We explore the combination of these narratives together, picking references and cues to fuse both worlds and make them meet where the product is. The goal is an inclusive conversation, a realization that what this Black man from South Africa is creating from this standpoint can look visually different, but is still understandable for everyone. It’s about finding where both worlds meet and creating a visual language to drive it home, while staying true to myself as the person creating it.

Based on your latest collection, It seems like your work contains an element of fiction. Can you describe it for us?

The collection is titled Black Renaissance and is inspired by decolonising fashion and South Africa’s fashion history, most of which has colonial origins. We created this collection last year, on the bicentenary of Britain’s landing in South Africa. We looked at what those two centuries have given to South African fashion, how they have made me who I am and who we are today. We decided to focus on uniforms: the South African Black church uniform, the British soldier army uniform, and the South African school uniforms, which derive from the British royal family suiting. Sometimes people don’t question where those uniforms come from and we were interested in bringing those conversations to light and in making a statement that we now own that conversation. So, our collection explored the juxtaposition that makes one aesthetic language—the uniform—work for two worlds, one that is very peaceful (church) and the other one reflecting the British army.

It’s that form of cultural fusion that makes people, to this day, still wear African animal hide, but also a white shirt and a blazer. Very different worlds coexist in one community. So we look into what this looks like and explore how we can be involved in taking it to the next level. People don’t talk about that cultural fusion because they don’t get to interact due to the traumatic history and past that has divided us. But we’re saying it shouldn’t divide us. We need to meet where we can understand each other and use these stories to propel us forward with a visual language that people on both sides can appreciate, and say: ‘ok, this is who we are’.

Who are your customers?

Mostly young Black South Africans and also Black African-American men and women. Ideally, we create for any consumer that is open to the conversation we’re trying to have: one about decolonising fashion and its consumption. There’s a shared history of how fashion is made and consumed that most people sweep under the rug. We want to address that. Western colonization of Africa is a shared history and we feed that into an aesthetic visual referent and garment. Take, for example, the styles of a Black man and a white man from the 1960s. We put both of them in a suit and write a narrative and create a whole collection based on that. By telling stories that are often overlooked, not spoken about, or ignored, we bring them to light through a visually-appealing essence that is true to us. It might not highlight the oppression and the oppressive system, but can still help us build a world where any consumer that is willing to learn from us and that’s also willing to teach us can find value in our product. It’s a shared journey: we’re growing with our customer.

There has been criticism that the increased global exposure of fashion from Africa is creating new stereotypes about the continent and commodifying identity. Where do you see South African fashion going and how is it negotiating its identity in this globalized context?

I think there is a lot of power in where South African fashion is now and where it’s going. It comes from the fact that the designers are using their identities to portray a vision of South Africa that they know, a portrayal of the country as it has existed and will continue to exist. Ten to fifteen years ago there weren’t any African designers on that playing field, but now you have designers that are able to portray the truth of the African aesthetic in such a broad manner, starting from stories, people, difficulties, or the prosperity of where Africa is going. Of course, the West would always have some power and some sort of direction, or coercion, on the world, because we want to access global markets and that creates a competition with our European, or Western counterparts. How that looks  aesthetically is what South African designers are getting to now. I think right now, South African designers – and a lot of African designers – are negotiating a space where they can compete alongside the West without losing their identity, but with an eye on the commerce side of things. That space has to exist sustainably for a business to grow within Africa and be taken abroad without having to negotiate too much with the West and giving it all away.

CREDITS

Photography // Aart Verrips
Styling // Chloe Andrea Welgemoed
Art direction // Chloe Andrea Welgemoed & Aart Verrips
Hair // Mimi Duma Ncumisa
Make-up // Tammi Mbambo
Assistance // Oratile Moh and Lebogang Ramfate

Cast
Nebula Thobejane
Martha Lephoto
Clement Xaba
Nkuley Masemola,
Kgothatso Matlala,
Ketia Kalala,
Active Brian,
Gabriel Zenani

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I’m a writer/researcher/translator exploring fashion, cultural sustainability and digital communication in Africa. I have published on books, journals, art magazines and been a consultant for RAI national broadcaster for the documentary African Catwalk, filmed at South Africa Fashion Week, 2019.ù