In Conversation with Jenny Lai & Chris Saunders on Digitally Enabled Cross-Cultural Creative Collaborations

‘NOT x Chris Saunders’ an experimental fashion and photography collaboration from New York to South Africa made possible by the Internet.

Armed with a bit of bandwidth and a few good keywords plugged into google’s image search, documentation of far flung happenings are only as far your finger tips. Add social media to the mix and you can track down near to anyone with an online presence. This hyper-connectivity is changing the prospects for creative collaboration.

 

Jenny Lai and Chris Saunders, Johannesburg, 2014. Photo by Justin McGee.

Jenny Lai and Chris Saunders, Johannesburg, 2014. Photo by Justin McGee.

 

The recent cross-cultural project between New York based fashion designer Jenny Lai, and Johannesburg based photographer and filmmaker Chris Saunders hits this point home. Their photography and fashion collaboration would never have happened if South Africa’s burgeoning creative scene wasn’t on the digital map.

 

S'PHARA PHARA, Real Actions Pantsula Dance Crew from Orange Farm Township, Gauteng. Photo by Chris Saunders.

S’PHARA PHARA, Real Actions Pantsula Dance Crew from Orange Farm Township, Gauteng. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

Without ever meeting in person, Lai and Saunders struck up a conversation. South Africa’s dynamic fashion and creative scene was the topic. With Saunders past experience documenting numerous urban sub-cultures and Lai’s penchant for experimental fashion, the duo were keen to push their boundaries and expertise.  But they still had to figure out how they could exchange, explore and engage with the local creative scene, while developing a working rapport.

 

Never think you’re above starting conversations with random people that connect with you online. You never know who they are and what amazing things you could end up doing together. — Chris Saunders

 

It took several months of planning leading up to Lai’s trip to South Africa. They landed on the idea to include several emerging unique creators working in different mediums. Each would be invited to bring their specific techniques and work together with Lai to recreate an existing garment from NOT, Lai’s experimental womenswear label. Saunders would shadow the process documenting it, and would then art direct and shoot the final stylised items. The wheels were set in motion.

Saunders tapped into his local network and introduced Jenny to fashion designer Dennis Chuene (Vernac Bags), Dr. Pachanga, a man about town and vintage clothier, Floyd Avenue , a Smarteez member and milliner (Follow The Rabbi Hat), Macdonald Mfolo aka Macdee, a Pantsula costume designer and puppet maker, as well as the effervescent Manthe Ribane, a model and dancer whose toured with notorious rap-rave band Die Antwoord.

THE-COLLABORATORS-02

 

Once on the ground, traveling between Cape Town, Johannesburg and its neighbouring townships, Lai discovers that unlike in New York most of her South African collaborators do not turn to the Internet for inspiration. Instead they look to people within their communities, their environments and familial histories. Take Floyd Avenue, the hat maker expressed his disinterest and boredom with fashion magazines, celebrity culture and media at large.

 

Through media, you just get someone else’s perspective on what is cool. But like Zulu guys, or Pantsula guys, they just wear what they feel good wearing, they don’t get influenced by the media at all. – Floyd Avenue

 

Expectably most of the designers choose to work with readily available materials, but the surprises lay in what they consider to be material. Dennis Chuene for instance is known locally for using plastic “China Bags” as the signature fabric for his label, Vernac bags.

 Working on the collaborative garment with Dennis Chuene made from the ubiquitous "China Bag", Cape Town. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Working on the collaborative garment with Dennis Chuene made from the ubiquitous “China Bag”, Cape Town. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

While the project was inspired by South African urban street trends and sub-cultures, the multi-faceted collaboration also brought to light the forces of globalisation, inter-continental migration, Hollywood’s far reaching influence, economic disparity, and markets flooded by second-hand clothing. However what resonates throughout, is the reality that the lifeline of reinvention is often made and held by the next generation.

 

We have to move beyond what our great grandparents wore. There has to be evolution. — Dr. Pachanga

 

These twists and turns are some of the elements that make this digitally enabled cross-cultural collaboration unique yet also universal. Whether working processes are digital or analogue,  ultimately they explore the ubiquitous language of making.

Leading up to the NOT x Chris Saunders exhibition in New York, over the coming weeks we will introduce each of the collaborators through candid interviews with exclusive behind-the-scene images shot during the making of each garment/accessory with images of the final collaborative pieces modeled by their muse, Manthe Ribane.

To get things started, meet the duo that crossed the digital divide, left caution to the wind and went on to conceive and make this project happen.

 

Missla Libsekal | Jenny you are based in New York and Chris in Johannesburg, what sparked and facilitated this collaboration?

Jenny Lai | One of the things Chris and I have in common is our work with dancers. I’ve long been interested in South Africa from an artistic point of view, and as I was doing some research, I came upon Chris’ photographs of Pantsula dancers and the Smarteez fashion collective. I was immediately intrigued and reached out to him.

Chris Saunders | We had many months of skype and email conversations with us discovering what we could do together here in South Africa. I also have a great live-in studio space with extra rooms which allowed Jenny to come over, and reside in the space which helped the process along.

 

Jenny with fashion designer Dennis Chuene (Vernac Bags). Photo by Chris Saunders.

Jenny with fashion designer Dennis Chuene (Vernac Bags). Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

What is the current most important development you’ve noticed, that is changing how the creative world operates? Does location factor into this?

JL | The Internet has flattened the world, in the way that I can discover a South African photographer’s work while sitting at my desk in New York, and eventually find myself there. Instagram has made cult heroes out of young and savvy kids, who in turn have become important commodities for big brands looking for an insider. Also, advanced technologies such as 3D printing and wearable devices are fast becoming a part of our everyday lives. However, obviously, access to the Internet and these technologies determines how much it actually affects the creatives of a particular city.

CS | I think the collaboration between Jenny and I is a great example of how the Internet has changed the way people perceive the African continent. We are not just a mysterious land mass in the middle of the map anymore, but an accessible multicultural pool of amazing undiscovered talent and processes. The Internet has also allowed creative people from the continent to showcase their work making it part of the broader creative consciousness.

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

Jenny & vintage clothier Dr. Pachanga playing dress-up with clothes from Piles, a second-hand clothing market in Johannesburg. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

Do you see any of your contemporaries crossing physical divides, mediums, cultures like yourselves to produce work? How is social media a part of this?

CS | In South Africa, I see it all the time. Social media has been a huge part of many young creative businesses starting up. It has made connecting with subjects and collaborators so much easier. A good example is the music industry here. For the first time musicians like Nozinja (Shangaan Electro) and Spoek Mathambo are exploding all over the world – this is largely due to their Internet presence.

JL | Some of my contemporaries source materials or artisan skills from different countries. I think what makes this project different is that I’ve completely immersed myself in this country (South Africa). I’m living here during our collaboration, experiencing life here, taking the mini taxi vans, eating local food, shopping from their fabric shops, working from their backyard shack studios. I’m working on equal footing with local creatives and potentially making things that I wouldn’t normally make on my own.

 

Local Johannesburg tailor sewing pleats on the Dr.Pachanga collaboration. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Local Johannesburg tailor sewing pleats on the Dr.Pachanga collaboration. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

What in your respective careers and journeys have been essential ingredients towards your aesthetic articulation ie. in terms of medium, your voice, style…?

JL | My interest in fashion is kept alive through traveling and discovering how people express themselves through clothing around the world. 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. Also, I grew up as a performer – classical musician, dancer, storyteller. So performance and performers have always been what moved me, excites and inspires me.

CS | I think for me having my commercial career as a photographer and filmmaker has allowed me to adopt my visual language – by not having to rely on these projects at the beginning of my career as my main source of income. It’s a luxury and now that things are taking off with my personal work, I feel more confident with the visuals I am producing. I also think living in Italy in 2010 whilst studying at Fabrica, helped to give me distance from my South African subject matter. I  realised that I needed to focus more on my return, as well as seeing that there is a huge interest in South Africa and its cultures which gives the work an outlet.

 

Discussing design ideas with designer and hat maker Floyd Avenue. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Discussing design ideas with designer and hat maker Floyd Avenue. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

What makes a design and or a photograph successful? and how are you bringing these two visions together through this collaboration?

JL | I think a successful design is like poetry or magic. It must be a strong suggestion of something that may otherwise be hard to describe with words. I think Chris and I have to navigate the line between how much to describe and how much to insinuate. In our final photographs, we want to show everything that we’ve thought about and researched but within a single gesture.

CS | For me it’s definitely the process. You have to think before your brain can focus itself. Hours of conversation and building of relationships. Sometimes the photograph itself takes minutes to be shot but if you have put in the time, the image is inevitably more interesting if not to others but at least to yourself. I think through the numerous conversations with Jenny, planning this project as well when we met in person, all allowed us to have a clearer direction when we hit the road and started producing the work. The process was also hugely aided by the fact that Jenny is extremely driven and she always kept the ball rolling, it takes someone as hard working as this to complete projects that seem almost impossible sometimes.

 

enny at work on the Macdee collaboration at Chris Saunder’s Johannesburg studio with Richard, Macdee’s assistant. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Jenny at work on the Macdee collaboration at Chris Saunder’s Johannesburg studio with Richard, Macdee’s assistant. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

As digital connectivity has been a critical element in this project, I am curious to hear your take on the democracy of information that the Internet is ushering and its invariable sensory overload. As creators do you question the act of creating, its purpose and your aims through it?

CS | I think there has always been an overload of information in one form or another, its a much more liberal platform though and I think that some people thrive off the chaos of what the Internet is and others shut down. I think the purity of creative collaboration and the physical act of making garments as well as photographing them is still where the beauty lies in the process, the Internet is just a conduit for connecting and showing the work.

JL | I found it interesting that most of the South African designers I collaborated with here don’t use the Internet much for research. In New York/the States I think most people reflexively turn to the Internet to look for research or inspiration. In some ways the Internet is a very limiting resource, but in other ways it’s limitless. One of our collaborators Macdee, for example, says he hardly ever uses it, but he might look something up months after he’s created it to find out that someone else has done a similar thing already. All of this makes me question – is it better to know or not to know? I strongly believe that creative design improves people’s lives, even in countries where other concerns, be it economic or political, seem more overtly pressing, I’ve never doubted the impact that art, beauty, and thoughtful design make in people’s lives.

 

Jenny and Macdee discussing  their past designs and sharing ideas at his home in Orange Farm township. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Jenny and Macdee discussing  their past designs and sharing ideas at his home in Orange Farm township. Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

Is Johannesburg [the main site of your collaboration] influencing the project?

JL | Johannesburg is absolutely integral to the project, dictating what materials are used, how processes are carried out, and the locations that inspire and set each story.

CS | My studio and home are located in the heart of the inner city of Johannesburg which has been for many years in a state of complete abandonment. Many of the final images in the project where influenced by the places around my studio, the recyclers, abandoned buildings, local tailors, hat makers and more.

 Recyclers behind Chris Saunders' studio stick fighting, a traditional Basotho past time.   Photo by Chris Saunders.

Recyclers behind Chris Saunders’ studio stick fighting, a traditional Basotho past time.   Photo by Chris Saunders.

 

What has been the highlight so far in this journey, a moment of disbelief, disappointment, wonder, excitement… ?

CS | I think we have definitely had each of those moments. When we were shooting the Macdee images we were surrounded by around 40 children in Orange Farm township. I was shooting and turned around and literally had people swarming the set but in complete silence which was amazing. I found it incredible how I was forced to explore my own city through this project, and also amazed at Jenny’s bravery while she missioned on public transport through the cities and townships. I was dissappointed when we had planned to have four Pantsula dancers in the last shot with Manthe cancel on the day of the shoot. However, I think that the shot came out even more beautiful in the given circumstances.

JL | The highlight has been some of the people I’ve been blessed to meet who have re-inspired me with the purity of their vision. I feed off of people who are really passionate about what they do. I also simply enjoy seeing where each of these designers come from, the places they work out of, how they travel around this large city. One of the challenges in the project has been the short time span. I only had one to two weeks to meet someone new, adapt our working styles, our expectations and interests, and create something together that we both value. I’ve done a few collaborations with my brand in the past, but this is the most number of separate collaborations I’ve done in a short amount of time.

 

Any tips you’d offer to creatives keen to spark a collaboration such as yours?

CS | Never think you’re above starting conversations with random people that connect with you online, you never know who they are and what amazing things you could end up doing together.

 

 

WHAT’S NEXT


With their upcoming exhibition in New York slated for this coming September, Lai and Saunders are once again turning to the Internet to reach out to netizens.

They recently launched their 1 month Indiegogo campaign to drum up support to finance the gallery show.

In addition, they are offering signed limited edition exhibition prints and posters for pre-purchase.

 

EXHIBITION


Wallplay presents NOT x Chris Saunders
* Sept. 10-17, 2014

The exhibition opens on September 10 and will also include a talk with Lai and Saunders,  Monday Sept 15th 7:30 PM.

Wallplay | 118 Orchard Street, New York

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN


Help them bring their project to New York!


 

About

Jenny Lai is a designer of experimental womenswear brand NOT, based in New York city. Prior to starting her label, she traveled around the world exploring the fashion industry from different angles. Her sojourns including time in Rwanda, Amsterdam (Viktor & Rolf), London (Boudicca), Mexico City (Carla Fernandez) and New York. NOT’s clothing has been featured in magazines such as WWD, Style Zeitgeist, and Surface Asia. 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. In 2010, Saunders attended Fabrica – Benetton’s Creative Research Facility in Italy where he collaborated on Colors magazine and other projects for United Colors of Benetton and Fabrica. Saunders clients to date including Dazed & Confused, Adidas, and Ogilvy.

whatwasparadise.com

 

 

Written by Missla Libsekal

South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy

 

 * 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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