In Conversation with Dr. Pachanga, a Johannesburg-based Vintage Clothier

NOT x Chris Saunders | A Fashion & Photography collaboration from New York to South Africa featuring Dr. Pachanga

For some fashion merely constitutes items of clothing to cover the body, and for others it’s the palette for creativity and individuality. Johannesburg based vintage clothier,  Jean-Rene Onyagunga who goes by the alias Dr. Pachanga, falls into the later category.

Dr. Pachanga sporting his favorite vintage outfit. Photo by Chris Saunders

Dr. Pachanga sporting his favorite vintage outfit. Photo by Chris Saunders.


His love affair with “Fashion” spelt with a capital F dates back to his childhood. Days spent in the Congo surrounded by the Sapeurs and crafters in his family. Dr. Pachanga’s style is eclectic, call it outrageous even. The man’s got panache, but that is pretty much par for the course when it comes to individuals who push boundaries.

Isabella Blow wasn’t feeling shy when she donned a Lobster hat on her head, albeit it was a Philip Tracy.  Those liberated from expectation and ‘norms’ are the intrepid.  Love it or hate it, the masses only realise when it becomes a trendy item stocked at the fashion chain in the local strip mall.


In terms of African style, we have to move beyond what our great grandparents wore. There has to be evolution. If there’s no competition, it’s just going to be stale. — Dr. Pachanga


Dr. Pachanga has found a following in Johannesburg where he is known as a taste-maker. His eye to pick out the gems from the mounds of Western caste-offs at the city’s second-hand markets has made him into a bit of a local legend – certainly amongst Johannesburg’s and Cape Town’s millennial crowd.  So when Johannesburg based photographer Chris Saunders, introduced him to Jenny Lai, as part of their New York to South Africa fashion and photography cross-cultural project, there was sure to be some good old fashion shenanigans to be had.


Dr. Pachanga and Jenny playing dress-up with the gems bought at second-hand market, the Piles. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Dr. Pachanga and Jenny playing dress-up with the gems bought at second-hand market, the Piles. Photo by Chris Saunders.


I asked Jenny what drew her to Dr. Pachanga. As it turns out they both share a similar fashion genealogy – finding gems at thrift stores. In Lai’s case, she altered them to suit her taste. Given her interest in the life cycle of clothing, and Dr. Pachanga’s flair and growing success selling mainly through social networks, a collaboration seemed like an ideal match or would at least make for an interesting journey.



Piles, a second-hand clothing market in Johannesburg on offer for 3 Rand, approximately 28 cents in dollars. Photo by Chris Saunders.


Their ideas would lead them on a research and buying trip to the Piles, a local Johannesburg second-hand clothing market to scour the heaps in search of a few potential gems. Theses clothes selected for their patterns, textures and shapes would be remade with a local tailor into one of Jenny’s silhouettes – a signature style from her experimental womenswear label NOT.  Documenting their journey, from first meeting to the making of the final garments, Chris Saunders shadowed the pair to capture behind-the-scenes footage.



Sifting through the heaps of second-hand Western ‘caste-offs’ in search of gems. Photo by Chris Saunders.


Leading up to Saunders and Lai’s exhibition NOT x Chris Saunders in New York, Another Africa introduces the project with exclusive interviews with each of the collaborators along with a preview of the final images with performance artist Manthe Ribane modelling each of the designs.




Tell us what excites you today about fashion?

Dr. Pachanga | My style is very flamboyant. In fashion, I find I can actually turn into a character which allows me to express myself more. I find fashion to have no limitations, so it draws me in, it drives me. Everyday has to be a different look. As soon as I put on an outfit, I’ll behave according to that outfit. When I wear my suit, I behave accordingly. You can’t be a man in a suit rolling on the ground.



Dr. Pachanga!!!  Photo by Chris Saunders.


What is your earliest fashion memory?

The first thing that I remember are my mom’s brothers who were musicians and wore Versace. They’d sing about Versace, about what they were wearing. One of my uncle’s basically didn’t really care about where he lived, as long as he wore his Versace. Head to Toe! Even if he wasn’t even going anywhere, he’d just stand outside the house to show off with the price tags on. It was like a rap battle, except they’d battle with their clothing. People in the neighborhood would rate the outfits saying ‘No he’s actually the one who won last week.’ I picked up a lot of that from my uncles. Also my mom always dressed us up. She couldn’t afford to buy us clothes, then she realized she could actually do it herself. So she started making stuff and taking it to the beach front. She taught me how to sew when I was 8 or 9. I never had friends, so I just chilled with my mom and helped her with patterns.

Where do you look for inspiration?

The second-hand clothing thing began when I was in school. My friends and I, all fashion students, drew inspiration from films that we’d watched. We’d adapt to the culture and dress like those characters. As students without much cash, second-hand thrifting was affordable. We collected similar pieces, mimicking the characters. Pachanga, came from Carlito’s Way II. We all had characters, almost like the Congolese Sapeurs, who have a day to come out. Every Sunday we had a ritual, we’d pick a theme like SDOs (Sliding Door Operators) and find a location. So for example we’d dress like SDOs, then go to a taxi rank and pose for photos.

What do you think about the culture of DIY?

One thing I don’t like is being the norm. So I’d push people to do it because they end up expressing themselves and building a bit of confidence because they’re doing it themselves.



Dr. Pachanga dons some of the gems bought together with Jenny from the Piles. Photo by Chris Saunders.


i-D magazine recently claimed that the Internet is the new street and “today trends break on the internet”. What’s your take on this, and how does this play out in Johannesburg?

The Internet is becoming very strong because people are actually interacting more outdoors, a lot of events are happening, people are investing in Joburg. Everyone is always on their phones taking photos. The strongest influence I can say is through musicians in Joburg. People go to watch them perform, so that they can see what pieces they’re wearing, what sneakers they’re wearing. Musicians like AKA and Malume Koolkat.

Do you think a style is tied to / belongs to a distinct location or can it be understood globally?

Many musicians here are building their own brands. They’ll play with African fabrics, but the actual shell is not an African shape, its more Western or European. I find that shapes determine different cultures. For example, when it comes to clothing, for African women, you don’t want to wear tight stuff. Now, the tight dresses you see them wearing -that’s Western. African culture is more loose, you’re not supposed to be revealing your body. There are different shapes that are identifiable. But it’s so mixed right now, we’re being influenced so much by each other, that it’s started to fuse.



Jenny trying on the garment in progress at the local arcade mall with the tailor. Photo by Chris Saunders.


One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. How do you make the distinction?

Before I used to go for brands – Calvin Klein, Versace everyone always appreciates that, but now I just go for quality, the look, and what I can actually do with it. When I’m shopping, I shop according to my customers. I’d say I shop 40% for customers, and 60% from my style.

Who is your market?

I’ve always lived in town and walk in areas that people don’t typically go. So that’s where I do my research and sourcing, areas consider poor/lower class. Since I was 6 years old (when we came to South Africa) that’s what my mom did. My grandmother in the Congo also did it, with the bales of second-hand clothing imported from the West. I find it strange that I actually make more sales to people in Joburg – where I actually do my sourcing. They know where I buy, but are still willing to buy from me. I realised that it’s no longer about the pieces, but more about the character. People are very influenced in South Africa; if they see you doing something cool, they want to do it. So when I wear clothing a certain way or style it for a shoot, it gives the clothing value.



Aerial view of the second-hand market, the Piles in Johannesburg. Photo by Chris Saunders.


The Business of Fashion published an Op-Ed last November discussing the problematics of second-hand clothing, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. From your point of view, do you think that this market is taking away from the business of local, independent designers when consumers are used to this bargain/low quality clothing?

In the Congo where I was born, from 1961 to the late 80s, when President Mobutu Sese Seko was in power, he basically stopped all clothing imports. So no second-hand Versace, Polo etc… Inevitably it developed fashion locally, the tailors etc. which was good for the country, but he also suppressed the people – those who wanted alternatives. It was actually illegal, if you got caught wearing an international brand you’d get into trouble. But despite that there was this gentleman’s club. The Sapeurs would meet up on Fridays, at a secret location and would show off their clothes. That said I wouldn’t say that second-hand clothes are killing the industry. In terms of African style, we have to move beyond what our great grandparents wore. There has to be evolution. If there’s no competition, it’s just going to be stale. Everyone is getting influenced by the Western world, but the Western world is also loving the African stuff. It’s something that you can’t stop, so you have to adapt.



Local tailor sewing pleats on the 2nd hand skirt, transforming it into a new design based on a NOT pattern.  Photo by Chris Saunders.


When clothes travel around the world they seem to lose the custom/occasion that might’ve been associated i.e. a party dress in one place, may be worn as an everyday dress in another, workwear in one place can be worn for street dancing in another. Do you see any change in perspective when Western clothes are worn here?

I find it really fun. Three months ago I wore a baseball outfit [all from the States] in a photographic kind of manner. I just found it fascinating. It’s not supposed to be here, it doesn’t fit in, but it also does in a way. ‘Shock of the norm.’


NOT x Chris Saunders | Dr. Pachanga Collaboration



As modeled by Manthe Ribane.  Photo by Chris Saunders.



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



Dr. Pachanga is the moniker of Congolese born Jean-Rene Onyagunga. Among many other creative ventures, he is a second-hand clothing vendor who introduces the global trade of recycling clothing in Johannesburg. Fans and loyal clients alike flock to his facebook page to snap up his latest selection of unique finds.

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.

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.


Johannesburg, South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy


Interview by Missla Libsekal in collaboration with Jenny Lai. 

 * July 22, 2014  | Update | The NOT x Chris Saunders exhibition dates have changed to run concurrently with New York Fashion Week.

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