In Conversation with Dennis Chuene, a Cape Town-based Fashion Designer

NOT x Chris Saunders | A Fashion & Photography collaboration from New York to South Africa featuring Dennis Chuene

Fashion designer Dennis Chuene in Cape Town, February 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Fashion designer Dennis Chuene in Cape Town, February 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

Coming of age is filled with periods of awkwardness, of playing with boundaries and self-expression.  Those attempts to discover how to align our clothes with our personalities, ideas and such.

I recall in high school a friend strutting about in slender very pointy black patent brogues. Those coveted Fluevogs were the precursor to the days when it was trendy to wear Dr. Martens. She happily stood out, whilst others snickered calling them elf shoes, and other choice unnameable descriptors. But Denise simply laughed and kept wearing her “soles for unique souls”.

Many a fashion designer finds inspiration in the Denise’s of this world, and the same can be said of Dennis Chuene. In his case the kids that helped form his early appreciation of fashion, were the eccentric musicians of his teens. Whilst musicians today still seem to have significant sway in South Africa, the designer finds his inspiration in the humble plastic traveling bag.

 

At a local market fashion designer Jenny Lai discovers she fits completely into a China bag. Cape Town, February 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

At a local market fashion designer Jenny Lai discovers she fits completely into a China bag. Cape Town, February 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

This ubiquitous plaid carryall sac goes by many names: Ghana Must go bag (Nigeria), Chinatown tote (New York), Bangladeshi bag (UK), Unomgcana or Umaskhenkethe (Xhosa), Guyanese samsonite (Carribean), China bag, Zimbabwe bag, Khumbulekhaya bags and Mashangaan bag(South Africa). These names hinting to socio-economics, unceremonious migration and discrimination.

Since 2011, Chuene has used the China bag as the mainstay motif for his accessory and fashion label, Vernac (short for vernacular). Based in Cape Town, his independent label is gaining recognition, particularly within South African design and fashion circles. This point confirmed by his inclusion at this year’s Design Indaba Africa is Now exhibition – a survey of some of the best contemporary design(ers) on the continent.

 

 

Quite frankly my preoccupation/obsession with the China bag, came with a need to take ownership of a discarded cheap bag that I grew up seeing.  I wanted to personify it, to give it a metaphoric voice to say, ‘I am part of you. You use me when you’re out on your luck and discard me when you make a buck.’ — Dennis Chuene

 

 

Like Chuene, New York based fashion designer Jenny Lai finds common ground in using, re-interpreting and re-contextualising so called banal materials. Their joint interest to push conventional modes in fashion led Johannesburg based photographer Chris Saunders, to make the initial introduction. Chuene would be invited to collaborate with the duo in their cross cultural photography and fashion project: NOT x Chris Saunders.

 

Dennis and Jenny meeting for the first time in Cape Town, 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Dennis and Jenny meeting for the first time in Cape Town, 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

Using disassembled China bags the designers would attempt to re-make a signature coat from Lai’s NOT womenswear line. Referencing Chuene’s Vernac bag making processes, zippers were reused, pattern-making took into account the limitations of the bag’s original form, and trimming was strategically incorporated to give visual contours. Given the semi-stiffness of the material, the designers had to be hands on, working out the draping to fabulous effect. The final garment is a playful layered, asymmetrical knee length coat. Whilst holding its shape layers respond to movement, a detail that becomes beautifully apparent in the final shoot art directed and photographed by Chris Saunders.

 

 

I approach clothing always through the lens of clothing as an experience – it’s an active medium that is always in flux with its human counterpart.  — Jenny Lai

 

 

Sketch of the NOT Overlock Coat, created from China bags, leather binding and their original zipper detailing, February 2014.

Sketch of the NOT Overlock Coat, created from China bags, leather binding and their original zipper detailing, February 2014.Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

Leading up to the NOT x Chris Saunders fashion and photography exhibition during New York fashion week in September, Another Africa introduces the project and collaborators.

Over the coming weeks, we share behind the scenes images, exclusive interviews with each collaborator and previews of the final garments and shoot featuring performance artist Manthe Ribane. So far we’ve introduced Jenny Lai and Chris Saunders, the instigators and catalysts for the project, followed by umswenko, Dr Pachanga. This week meet Dennis Chuene.

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH DENNIS CHUENE

 

What is your earliest fashion memory?

Dennis Chuene | It was in my teens. I’d always bump into this group of eccentric kids,  musicians as I later came to find out. They were very confident and comfortable in their grungy faux-fur collared trench coats and skinny jeans in the middle of summer. My interest was sparked by their nonchalant attitude towards the numerous insults that were hurled at them. It never broke them. If anything, they became more colourful and brighter with their attire.

 

Can you share with us your thoughts on DIY culture?

I quite relish the idea of DIY, especially as it’s without the aid of experts or professionals. This means my personal interpretation comes without any other influences (other than my own, and what I have been exposed to).

 

Portrait of Dennis Chuene, Cape Town, February 2014. Photo | Chris Sau

Portrait of Dennis Chuene, Cape Town, February 2014. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

Designers have often looked to street style to inspire their work. According to fashion cult zine i-D magazine, the Internet is the new street and “today trends break on the internet.” What’s your take, and how does this play out in Cape Town?

By far the Internet has a wealth of information on emerging trends and techniques. I find myself glued behind my laptop at odd hours of the night going through different sites. However with this much information readily available by a simple click there’s plagiarism and bootlegging of ideas. Like in the case of blogger Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah who wrote the article ‘Bags and Stamps’ to which Telegraph writer Liz Hunt simply rearranged paragraphs and made name changes in her interpretation on her article ‘Immigrants have bags of ambition’.

On the other hand Cape town and Cape Townians have a simplistic approach to dressing whilst of course taking subtle pieces and mish-mashing them together to create their own looks. They too follow suit when it comes to street wear, following trends put out by musicians. Vintage has seen rapid growth in the last 3 years. Playful colour blocking is a nostalgic delight when looking for inspiration for a new range. The Internet has a huge influence on how we dress, but for the real street trends I always look to the street inspiration.

 

For instance, where does your inspiration come from?

My inspiration is drawn from the vast use of the “China Bag” by asylum seekers, refugees or any Tom, Dick and Harry whose also found use for these bags for their laundry. From throwing it over their shoulder because the bag is too heavy, I simply re-interpreted that into a backpack. Or to cold winter nights when the homeless cover themselves up with them, to fend off the frost, I came up with an Autumn/Winter knitwear range that includes a crew neck, sweater, baseball jacket and scarf. I just want to tell a story of their hardship. By simply introducing these bags into other mediums it reminds people of what was, what is and what can be – to achieve nostalgia.

 

What excites you about fashion?

The creative process. Getting an idea, sourcing the fabric, cutting and finally the most pleasurable of all, sewing it together. This is why I still sit behind a sewing machine day in, day out until odd hours of the night. It’s more personal for me.

 

Dennis sewing the coat at his home studio. Photo | Chris Saunders.

Dennis sewing the coat at his home studio. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

In terms of your label, Vernac Bags, can you share some insights on how you go from an initial idea to a collection ie. your process, materials, team/collaborators?

In my last two collaborations, I choose to work with designers with rich South African or rather African design influences: Stoned Cherrie and Palesa Mokubong. Both are influential leaders in the portrayal of a proud modern day African woman. So it’s by no coincidence that I’ve worked with these power houses, as they both made use of materials synonymous with indigenous South African fabrics, that resonate with the individuals that wear them. For Palesa I used my signature China or rather ‘Mashangani Bag’ as its popularly known in the northern parts of South Africa, to make over-sized clutch bags as her range centred around street opulence and being more playful. For Stoned Cherrie I made use of their signature ‘Love Movement’ fabric to make chic hobo and overnight bags made from lady’s head-wrap scarves. These head wraps are worn by older sometimes even married woman, and are worn to weddings, funerals and ancestral rituals.

 

Do you think your style is tied to or belongs to a distinct location, or can it be received globally?

I’d say my design ethos has mellowed down into minimum detailing as its now less self expressive. I found what I made in past years was more self-indulgent and isolated the very people the items were intend for. Whilst these would very well fit international runways and theatres, they weren’t practical nor sustainable. The use of the China bag, its infamous popularity bridges the gap between innovation, self-expression as well as global appeal making it fitting for global consumption for lack of a better word. My style cannot be tied down to one particular location, as recent events have shown that an emblem of hardship is worthy of being worn amongst other international brands.

 

Making the finishing touches to the NOT x Vernac reinterpretation of the Overlock coat in Dennis' living room.

Making the finishing touches to the NOT x Vernac reinterpretation of the Overlock coat in Dennis’ living room.

 

The ‘China Bag’ which goes by numerous names around the globe including ‘Mashangani Bag’ as you mentioned is your signature motif. It’s ubiquitous, the affordable carryall bag for migration.Transformation clearly seems to be part of your design process. Can you elaborate?

Quite frankly my preoccupation/obsession with the China bag, came with a need to take ownership of a discarded cheap bag that I grew up seeing.  I wanted to personify it, to give it a metaphoric voice to say, ‘I am part of you. You use me when you’re out on your luck and discard me when you make a buck.’ To elaborate many Africans have used these bags to take refuge in a foreign land, in search of a better life. This is why they came to be known [guilty by association] as emblems of hardship in any part of Africa. Historic events such as when Ghanians were kicked out of Nigeria, and teems of tortured souls packed their valuables into this ‘Made in China’ tartan bags and made their way back to their impoverished country. This bag is not a representation of China’s cheap labour work/produce – not to those that migrate from city to city, country to country, illegally jumping borders by train, by overloaded buses. No, it is an emblem of hope, but its discarded when they arrive in the big cities.

 

The final garment. Photo | Chris Saunders.

The final garment. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

 

Aside from what you’ve achieved with your label Vernac, what are some of the most interesting applications or transformations of the China bag that you’ve encountered, on the street or elsewhere?

By far the most commercially viable interpretation was by Céline. What they did with it made my heart sink, as its been my long dream to interpret the patterns into a wearable form. Louis Vuitton took a stab at it too, whilst most including myself, would say they trivialised the essence and the aesthetically rich history of the bag by making it high and inaccessible to those that have a sentimental attachment to it. A huge design house had no place using patterns without quite understanding its value and rich history, as the brand stood in sharp contrast to the China bag.

NOT x Chris Saunders | Dennis Chuene Collaboration

 

NOT x Vernac Overlock Coat as modeled by Manthe Ribane. Photo | Chris Saunders.

NOT x Vernac Overlock Coat as modeled by Manthe Ribane. Photo | Chris Saunders.

 

EXHIBITION


Wallplay presents NOT x Chris Saunders
Sep. 10 – 17, 2014

The NOT x Chris Saunders exhibition showcases a cross-cultural fashion and photography collaboration spearheaded by Jenny Lai, a New York based fashion designer, along with Johannesburg based photographer and film maker Chris Saunders.

The exhibition will feature a selection of NOT garments as re-interpreted through Lai’s collaboration with four South African based creators : Dr Pachanga, Dennis Chuene, Floyd Avenue, Macdee. Images shot by Saunders documenting the collaboration with final cuts featuring performance artist and model Manthe Ribane will also be exhibited. It opens on September 10th and will also include a talk with Lai and Saunders on Monday, September 15th at 19:30

Wallplay | 118 Orchard Street, New York

 

About

Dennis Chuene’s chance encounter with the head of Lisof, Johannesburg’s fashion design school, landed him a bursary to study fashion. In 2011, Chuene launched his design label Vernac, which is short for vernacular and it definition that refers to indigenous languages and dialects. Vernac narrates untold stories, those that need to be told in an array of dialects – not only for people in South Africa, but all lands. Chuene’s designs were featured in the Africa is Now exhibition in Cape Town at Design Indaba 2014. vernac.co.za

Jenny Lai is a designer of experimental womenswear brand NOT, based in New York city. She also designs custom performance-wear for musicians and dancers pushing the boundaries of interdisciplinary performance. notaligne.com

Chris Saunders is a South African born photographer and filmmaker based in Johannesburg. His work includes documentary projects mainly focused on original subcultures of South Africa such as Pantsula, Izikhotani, and Shangaan Electro as well as commercial endeavours. whatwasparadise.com

 

Cape Town, South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy

 

Interview by Missla Libsekal in collaboration with Jenny Lai.

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