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Swanky Swenkas

Photos by David Fleminger
May 1, 2007, 12:00am

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.

ADOLPHUS MBUYISA

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.

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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.