Forced removals under the notorious Group Areas Act of 1950 were designed to break the spirit of black people. The plan was to move them to faraway places and discourage them from unleashing their potential, but three fashion designers from Western Cape townships have turned these spiteful politics to their benefit.
Asanda Qumelwana and Christopher Mayiji hail from Gugulethu, 15km from Cape Town’s city centre, and Fezile Retyu comes from Khayelitsha, about 30km from the city. They have pooled their talents to create clothing label Deep Settle Movement (DSM), which reflects their township roots.
The trio met at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2007, when they were graphic design students. It was there that they discovered a common desire to share their creativity. They set up shop in a tiny office at the Motale Bus Service premises in Gugulethu in 2010, and the rest is fashion history.
Inspired by culture and demographics, DSM exports its merchandise to New York in the United States.
Qumelwana, Mayiji and Retyu, who are all in their early 30s, design T-shirts, collared shirts, tank tops, pocket tees, sweaters, hoodies, dresses, shorts and beanies. They outsource the manufacturing, then print the words Gugs, short for Gugulethu, and Kaltsha, short for Khayelitsha, on the items.
“Our designs are inspired by culture and demographics,” they say. “We are situated deep on the edge of Africa.”
The name Gugulethu is a contraction of igugu lethu, which is isiXhosa for “our pride”. Along with the Western Cape township of Nyanga, Gugs, as it is familiarly known, was established in the 1960s.
Established in 1983, Khayelitsha is one of the largest townships in South Africa. The name is also in isiXhosa and means “new home”. It was established to accommodate shack dwellers on the Cape Flats, the majority of whom came from Old Crossroads to escape violence by the so-called Witdoeke, a notorious vigilante group.
Both Gugulethu and Khayelitsha form part of the Cape Flats, an area characterised by a vast sheet of aeolian sand, originally of marine origin, that blew up from the adjacent beaches over time. Weather-wise, the Cape Flats are synonymous with floods during the winter rains because the area is flat and full of sand.
Demographically, the architects of apartheid seemingly chose these areas because of the difficulties they posed for the people living there. But, say the entrepreneurs behind DSM, “that is exactly what inspired us, the location of our townships”. Retyu says there’s crime, unemployment and poverty there, but DSM has inspired hope.
Hope and ambition
He adds: “Our brand is a representation of that struggle. We want to inspire our generation and prove that no matter the obstacles or hardships one may face, you can use that pain and create something extraordinary.”
Qumelwana concurs, saying: “Ambition drove us in the face of adversity.” He explains that DSM supports five employees, including three full-time sales representatives and a driver, as well as New-York based lawyer Pedro Alvarado, who is handling DSM’s administration.
Qumelwana says the demand for their work is exceeding their ability to supply at the moment. Mayiji explains that this situation is caused by the popularity of their brand. “We get orders from all over the country. Most of our clients are from Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. We have huge followers on social media,” he says.
Mayiji says their brand is also popular in Gugulethu, Langa and Khayelitsha. “We have a car that we use as a mobile shop. We don’t want customers to come to us. We go to them, to show our gratitude,” he says.
The trio use social events to set up pop-up shops. “That increases our popularity. There are always events each weekend. We go to popular places such as KwaAce and Rands. That boosts our sales a lot,” says Retyu.
Popular styles, satisfied customers
DSM’s current range of sweaters and jackets sell for R500. Most popular are sweaters bearing the Made in Africa logo, as well as the Khaltsha sweater and the Deep Settle Badge hoodie.
Retyu says they use different, low-charging factories to manufacture their designs. “Our aim is to cut out the middleman so we can employ locals,” he says.
Qumelwana explains that the products are vibrant and of high quality, that they have unique designs inspired by township culture and urban lifestyle. “All of our garments are manufactured in Cape Town, offering an authentic feeling that most brands can’t offer.”
The mix of good quality and authenticity are, according to Mayiji, what has driven their popularity. “We receive more orders from all over the world as a result of that and our clientele base has increased.”
DSM clothing customer Xolile Mntuyedwa from Gugulethu says he will forever be loyal to the brand. “Let us be realistic and patriotic. How can we keep buying from foreign-owned clothing retailers such as Edgars and Uzzi while we have our own designers?
“Since I heard about these guys and bought the first item seven years ago, I told myself no more buying from any other shop for me. This is a proudly South African product. Who is going to buy it if we cannot?”
Another customer, Nozuko Liwani from Khayelitsha, says she was intrigued when she first saw DSM items.
“It was in winter in 2016. My brother came home from Gugulethu wearing this hoodie with a name Gugs in front. I asked him where did you print it? He laughed at me and took it off and gave it to me. I held it and fell in love with its quality. I continued with my question. Where did you print it?” she says.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me he bought from its original makers in Gugs. I asked him to get one for me as he is a regular visitor in Gugs. Indeed, he bought it for me and a cap written [with the word] Kaltsha the following week. Since then I have been buying from the guys, though not all my clothes.”