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For South Africa's Smarteez, Fashion Is Freedom

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    Photographed by Chris Saunders.

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    For a new generation of young people in South Africa, fashion is freedom. When photographer Chris Saunders attended South Africa Fashion Week almost a decade ago, he noticed “this incredibly well-dressed, loud group of guys” outside the shows. Curious, he decided to say hello and struck up a conversation with the men. Fortuitously, a friend of his had wanted to interview them for a magazine. Together, they went to Rockville, Soweto, and snapped what would be the first of many shoots of the Smarteez.

    As a collective, the Smarteez are unwilling to be limited by the historical burden of apartheid or societal expectations of dress. Instead, they understand fashion to be a tool of expression and an declaration of freedom. For Saunders, it is that consciousness that makes the Smarteez into a movement. They are not a fad.

    “They need a new identity, different from that of their forefathers,” Saunders explains. They have not been content to live out the narrative “that had been passed down from apartheid.”

    Like any bold subculture, the Smarteez are innovators. They are a testament to “abundant creativity, explosive youth culture, and [a] manic need for positive expression,” Saunders adds. By documenting them in a nation that must still combat destitution, disease, and corruption, he is almost certain: “We could create a new image of this place.”


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  2. Photographed by Chris Saunders.

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    What was your first impression of the Smarteez?
    "An explosion of creativity. Punk rock, but in a local context. They dress in bright colors and were thrifting way before it was a trend. They were publically verbally abused in their community all the time. But they fought through and kept going with what they believed — and still do. They became the forefathers of a new generation of loud creatives in fashion from the townships of Johannesburg."

  3. Photographed by Chris Saunders.

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    How did this photo series develop? What did you want to capture?
    "It developed naturally, in a purist documentary approach. We met in Rockville, walked down the road to local outdoor braai (barbecue), and I shot the group as they were in their daily attire."

  4. Photographed by Chris Saunders.

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    "I wanted to capture them for who they were. I always like to ask my subjects how they want to be portrayed, rather than push my identity or agenda onto them."

  5. Photographed by Chris Saunders.

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    Where do the Smarteez shop? What inspires them?
    "As a group, the Smarteez all have different skillsets. They all design clothing, but originally they mainly re-designed older thrifted items from the downtowns shops and markets of inner Johannesburg. I would say they are inspired by different things as individuals, but use the group as a mechanism to broadcast their message."

  6. Photographed by Chris Saunders.

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    How do the Smarteez compare to typical Johannesburg fashion?
    "When I think back to what Johannesburg was like in the early 2000s, it was duller. It felt like fashion was different shades of grey. This, to me, was not reflective of the environment and attitudes of the people that live here. The city is layered, complex, colorful."