Simon Ngubane: I began dressing to forget my troubles. Dressing up is about self-discipline and pride. It is a serious business. Clothes make the man. I want to spread swenking to the entire country. It could turn the tide against crime.
PHOTOS BY MARC SHOUL TEXT BY DAVID FLEMINGER
wenkas are South African men who dress up in tailored suits and hold fashion shows every couple of weeks. At the shows, they’re judged for their outfits, their attention to detail, and the little moves they do to call notice to both. It’s real flourishy. The winner takes a cut of the door fee, which is generally a fraction of the cost of one suit. At Christmas in Durban, all the local swenking organizations get together for the finals and name the swenkiest guy in all South Africa.
Because most swenkas earn about $400 a month and a top-end tailored suit costs about $1,200, they buy clothes on layaway, spending like a year visiting a suit in the shop and making little homeopathic payments on it, dreaming about it at night. Basically, all that My Beautiful Laundrette, Horatio Alger stuff is in full effect, minus the gayness and the wealthy relatives on the one hand and America and rising up on the other.
It is about dreams, friends.
I am one of the organizers of the Joburg swenkas. I don’t know how many suits I own, maybe 20 or 30. If I see a suit I like, I simply must have it. I also have lots of shoes, ties, and shirts. It is important for everything to match if you want to win a competition.
My favorite shop is Boxer in the Eastgate shopping center. When my suits need to be cleaned, I only use Exclusive Dry Cleaners in Rosebank. It’s expensive, but they are the best. Just doing a shirt costs R110 ($15).
I work at a newsstand in town, so I don’t have enough money to pay cash for all the suits I want. That’s why I pay them off a little bit each month. At the moment, I am still paying off three suits.
I live in a room in Soweto. My family is very supportive of me and my clothes. They don’t mind that I spend so much money on suits—they are proud of me and they like it when I look smart.
Handmade suit, $142. Fumsare shirt, $285. Dobs hat, $21. Floruzzi tie, $57. Upbeat shoes, $214.
I was born in the village of Nqutu. I am 41 years old. As a boy, I watched my father and brothers compete in swenking competitions. I entered my first competition in Nqutu in 1991, and I won a cow.
Since I moved to Joburg, I have won many swenking competitions. I own 19 suits or more, but I always check with my wife before buying another one. Most of my suits are made by Indian tailors that I know.
I live with my wife and four kids in Jeppestown. I hope that, one day, my son will grow up to be a swenka. I am keeping all my old suits for him. I won’t throw them out, even though I am now too fat to wear them.
Jean Pierre suit, $214. Pierre Cardin shirt, $43. Florsheim shoes, $171. Pierre Cardin tie, $29.
I was born in Babanango in 1973. My father, Halpheus, was a past chairman of my swenking group. I remember watching him in swenking competitions in Nqutu and Durban. He looked very impressive. My father taught me how to match colors and helped me to develop my own style.
I moved to Joburg in 1992 and I now work at a car-rental company, where I inspect the vehicles. I bought my first suit in 1997. It was black. Now I have a few others. It makes me feel very happy to look good. I’d like to buy more suits, but I cannot afford them yet.
I live with my wife in a room in Malvern. We do not have much money, but she supports me 100 percent. She says she feels good when she sees me all dressed up. I am not taking part in any competitions at the moment, because my wife just had a miscarriage and I am not feeling strong enough to compete. But I am still looking forward to having a family in the future.
Jean Pierre suit, $128. Baker shoes, $107. Cashini shirt, $200. Pierre Cardin tie, $29.