Carvelas, classism, and appropriation

carvelas

I don’t consider myself a fashionista, but I’ve always been a fan of fashion. I grew up watching Project Runway, have often ogled over fashion magazines and fashion blogs, and window shop on a fairly regular basis. Over the years I’ve developed a healthy interest in trends and incorporating those trends into my style (within reason of course).

One of the trends I remember during my high school years was the Carvela trend. I remember there came a stage when I saw the Italian shoes, often worn with floral shirts and pants that came just above the ankle, everywhere. They were a shoe of choice among Kasi boys and became a hallmark symbol of the izikhothane subculture. They, and the people who wore them, were subjected to serious mockery by my friends and me. We viewed the shoes as “ugly” and most importantly as “ghetto”. We were not alone. Across the board, both on and off social media middle to upper middle class black kids, among others, relentlessly mocked the shoes. We decried them as shoes we would never be caught dead wearing, and if you cared at all about your image you made sure you weren’t.

Fast forward to 2016 and fashion brand Spits in collaboration with Carvela has launched their South African #LoveMyCarvelas campaign using popular twelebs and young fashion influencers as their models. Over the past few days,  photos of them wearing the once derided shoes have hit Twitter by storm portraying the shoes, and their wearers in a Pinterest/Tumblr-esque high fashion aesthetic.

The campaign has received a mixed reaction. On the one hand, there are those praising it for “broadening the target market” of Carvelas and portraying the brand in a fashion forward, “classy” way. On the other hand, there are a number of uncomfortable truths one is confronted with by the campaign. The first is that, contrary to what we believed and insisted in high school, the shoes are not in any way ugly. In fact, even back then we were wearing these exact same shoes but we weren’t calling them Carvelas nor were we buying the actual brand. We were buying other brands of the exact design and calling them “moccasins” or “loafers” or by whatever other official fashion term existed for them.

The design itself was fine, the brand was not. This then leads us to the second uncomfortable truth: there’s nothing actually wrong with the brand. What was wrong in our minds was the people who were associated with it. Without even realising it the deep seated classist attitudes we held manifested itself in a hatred and derision of anything associated with the “Kasi” lifestyle. A lifestyle that we, who were growing up and attending school in the cushy suburbs, wished to distance ourselves from at all costs. I can almost guarantee that had this campaign surfaced while I was in high school, there is a very good chance my friends and I would have marched to the nearest mall to purchase our very own pair of Carvelas. That is where the problem lies.

What makes this campaign particularly uncomfortable is the manner in which (as many on Twitter have rightfully pointed out) it completely erases its core market. For years, Kasi kids have been dedicated patrons of the brand and have made a significant contribution to the brand’s success in South Africa. Yet this campaign focuses firmly on the so-called “Cool Kids”, the  black fashionistas who are native to hipster havens such as Braamfontein, Maboneng, among others. The aesthetic of the black “Cool Kid” is one firmly rooted in the middle and upper middle class, making it highly marketable for brands such as Carvelas and exclusionary to those who have in many ways popularized it within South Africa in the first place. I, and many others, may never have even heard of the brand had it not been for the izikhothane subculture.

The uncomfortable truths behind the campaign bear some similarities to the fashion industry in the US and its endless appropriating of African American culture. Over the decades, African Americans have been derided for the manner in which they dress, style their hair, dance, speak and the music they produce and listen to. Yet at the same time, this exact culture has been reproduced in pop culture from the rise of white musicians with a notably black sound such as Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Adele, and Sam Smith, to the Kardashians who are praised for having the very same black features often insulted when they are on black bodies, to the fashion industry labelling African American inspired clothing as “urban”, placing it on models who are not black and then selling it as high fashion.

cultural-appropriation-1

Micah Gianneli modelling African American inspired “Hip Hop” fashion for a high fashion label

In other words, the Carvela campaign is reproducing the tendency of the fashion industry to sell a “look” that was either created or popularized by a specific, often marginalised, group of people while simultaneously excluding them in the process. Sure, Carvela could perhaps argue that this is their brand and they had never intended to be associated with the izikhothane subculture in the first place. But this would miss the point entirely.The brand has ignored its most faithful core market to pander to a far more fickle one which may wear its shoes today and move on to the next hottest trend tomorrow all as it often does. In an attempt to distance itself from its association with the izikhothane subculture, the brand has reproduced the same latent classism that we did in back in high school.

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To go forward, we must go back

This piece in its edited form was published on the website OkayAfrica under a different title. This is the original piece.

On Sunday night, I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the picture that has since reverberated across the country. The picture was of 13 year old Zulaikha Patel with her arms in a defiant cross in the air, framed by her massive, beautiful afro. From the moment I saw that picture, and heard of the protests happening at Pretoria Girl’s High, I knew it was not just about the black students’ right to wear their hair the way it naturally grows out of their heads. It was about the institutional racism that permeates Model C schools and suffocates the black children caught in those spaces every day. It was about a battle that I only knew too well as I had spent 12 years of my life fighting it.

I had spent the first 5 years of my life at a model C school in Sandton, Johannesburg and then spent the rest of my schooling at an elite private girls’ school in Parktown. I too had been subjected to rules which forbade wearing my natural hair, watched my fellow black classmates get detention for speaking to one another in their home languages, and in many ways both big and small felt my blackness being undermined constantly. The effect that these schools had on me was a deep sense of insecurity both in my blackness and in my sense of self. I was constantly in a space where blackness was degraded often through insidious throw away phrases like “this is not Soweto” when us black girls made too much noise or through my white classmates putting on a “blaccent” whenever they were pretending to be poor or ignorant for a humorous effect. It was degraded in bigger ways too, such as a teacher defending colonialism and saying those who were against it were “absurd”. Or a group of black pupils using the library the same way other students did everyday being kicked out for making it look “untidy”.

So, when Patel’s picture came out, I felt two things. The first was a deep sense of understanding of the situation she finds herself in. The second was a deep sense of shame. Over the past few days many have already commented that we should not be romanticising the protest action. Instead we should be outraged that little girls, and just how small Patel is was one of the very first things that struck me, are having to fight a battle that should have been fought 22 years ago, and if not 22 years ago then it should have been fought by us.

As a student there is very little power that one has in a model C or private school. However, as alumni we have a little more say, especially since our schools are always asking us for donations. Not only do we as alumni have more political power within the actual schools, we have an amount of institutional knowledge and memory of the institution that current pupils may not have. As adults, we are in a better position to deal with the backlash such a campaign would garner than a group of 13 to 14 year old girls still dealing with the emotional turmoil and self-discovery that comes with puberty. Already, the girls involved in the protests have been accused of being disruptive, undisciplined, caring more about fashion than schooling, among other accusations from the very vocal naysayers of the protest action. What the backlash both from their peers and from critics around the country could be doing to these girls’ self-esteems is something we have yet to discover.

Rather than focusing on the extraordinary bravery of the young girls, bearing in mind that this does deserve to be commended as it did take an incredible amount of courage many of us did not have in school to do this, we should be asking ourselves how much we have failed for a group of 13 year old girls to get to the point where they had to take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps, as the black alumni of model C and private schools, we should be asking ourselves if we could do more. Should we heading back to our schools and challenge rules such as the Codes of Conduct which not only forbid natural hairstyles, but any cultural or religious ornament, garment, or hairstyle that does not fit neatly into the colonial often Christian culture of these schools? Should we be going back and demanding that blackness not just be treated as an aesthetic to be whipped out for the annual cultural evening but as a lived reality that demands to be given the same respect both in the school’s culture and in the curriculum?

These conversations are already starting to be had by black alumni, and I’m hoping these protests will encourage more of us to look back at our highs chools and seriously consider changing the environment there. Recently, I was rereading the book series that spawned the hit television series Game of Thrones and one of the lines that a priestess said in a prophecy was “to go forward you must go back”. I truly believe that as black alumni in particular, if we wish to see an end to institutional racism in our country and move forward from the injustices of the past then we must go back and start at our former high schools.