For South Africa’s Smarteez, Fashion Is Freedom

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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