The Sartists – One of the first collective’s whose name imprinted onto my young mind when I situated myself within the man-made concrete mounds of the bitter-sweet creative city of Johannesburg. A very organic process considering that this group stood out as one of inimitable expression characterized by disruptive, radical thought and one of a kind fashion apparel. The multidisciplinary collective made up of Andile Buka, Kabelo Kungwane, Wanda Lephoto and Xzavier Zulu seek to challenge insular notions about blackness with a documentary approach to style and identity. Now four years since the inception of their creative brotherhood the auteurs of the ‘Sport Series’, the ‘Our Tribe’ Stüssy editorial and the Levi’s Customization project are in the midst of a transition.
As time has passed so have the dynamics of creative production for The Sartists who are working more towards honing their practices individually outside of the collective. What is anticipated by the group for this year is a number of international exhibitions and a keener focus toward personal projects for the group as a whole.
Individually Wanda’s fashion label, ‘Wanda Lephoto’, a ready-to-wear brand taking its inspiration from under-celebrated black culture, has a new collection in the works. With his focus marked on the new collection, Wanda will partake in his first South African Fashion Week. One of the goals he shares with us in conversation is to employ people for his label and to share skills, grow and participate in more events as an individual, and as a collective.
The collective’s transition is one of singular focus looking inward as can be seen with a renewed focus on the Customization of denim project. A collaborative project between Wanda, Kabelo and a retail partner will bring forth a new denim capsule. Wanda explains that the design focus on denim can be attributed to their collective attempt at channelling earlier DIY forms of denim production for the group that took place in their homes.
“I think there is a strong cultural significance about denim within our spaces. Jeans can last you 5-10 seasons depending on how well you treat them and how good the quality is. I like to make classic products that will outlive me and my time on earth. Denim is one of the key items I love to design because it embodies that,” Wanda explains.
Wanda shares that he would like to use his first fashion show as a stepping stone to have his models’ opinions voiced beyond their aesthetic appeal. “I like to use people with substance that are giving back to the culture.”
Kabelo has been working on projects in honour of his late father and launched a casual football brand in this year that speaks to South African culture. Football is of integral importance to him as it was one of the first sports that he played and the idea for the brand acts as a way of creating a football lifestyle.
In October of last year Xzavier celebrated two years at adidas and expresses that “I am in a different space, the corporate guy in the group. I’m trying to balance that with who I was even outside of the collective.” He hopes to release two collections this year. As the collective works towards individual growth, he expresses that it will facilitate collective efforts and pinpoints it as an internal, mental and cultural shift.
He elaborates on their current way of working by stating that the group assists one another in personal projects and makes time in their schedules to work towards projects for the collective. An example of this can be found in the 5OS (Five-O-Sartists) Levi’s project by Xzavier Zulu. Some might say that this mode of cultural production is the future of collaborative practice.
Being a part of a collective is an incomparable support network within itself built on trust and respect, Xzavier expresses. He looks to his collective not only for advice and support but for truthfulness in his practice – to tell him when his work needs more, less or something different.
“There is more of a community, a family. A respect and understanding of each other’s possible success. There is a very clear understanding that your efforts are as great as the next person’s and can only help the collective as a whole.”
His advice for getting your first “in” with a brand is to be patient, work hard and surround yourself with others who share the same work ethic as you. He identifies the collective’s success as one that came about from years of customizing, thrifting and working hard. “Understand that you need to work even if you think you’ve made it. If you want that brief from that brand you need to think like that and be really mature.”
Andile has been working in Japan frequently over the last 3 years and expresses that the city stimulates his personal projects. He explains that his constant return can be attributed to his interest in publishing and creating photo books in a city where publishing is more affordable.
“I think I’ve done more that side than this side in terms of my personal work. It’s humbling to have that presence and support in a city that you are not from.”
When probed as to why he remains a member of the collective he states, “You come to the realization that you can do things by yourself but when you do them as a collective it’s better, it’s bigger, it’s stronger.”
With labels such as “Johannesburg’s best dressed crew” and perhaps a subculture within itself, The Sartists embody at present everything they set out to be; to be storytellers who celebrate black culture and subvert narrow minded views on blackness in modern society. The collective has left their imprint on South African youth culture and fashion resulting in other young people becoming stylists by thrifting and customization. As the brand has grown over time so has its members. The choice to focus on their practices individually has not resulted in a negative impact and instead they look to one another as family and as a support network to grow the collective through individualized growth and focus. What is of importance is “a greater consciousness” and advocating for change. As their website states, “IT’S NOT ABOUT US”.