When the Smarteez first formed a few years ago, its members quickly made their mark with a skinny-legged hipster silhouette punctuated with bright colors and bold fabrics. Today, their look seems to have evolved into something a bit more conventional and store-ready. That is, with the exception of motormouthed Sibu “FDB” Sithole, clearly the group kook, who on this afternoon rocked a military cap, multicolored Ray-Bans, a tight white T-shirt with a rainbow splayed across it, and about 12 pounds of jewelry. “I’m bored with Jo’burg,” Sithole declared at one point. “Everything we’re seeing around town now, we were doing five years ago—like the skinny jeans. I want to go to New York! To Kenya!”
One of the women, Pule Nchabeleng, her cornrows pulled back under a black headband, jumped in to put the group in context: “We don’t need to wear some cultural African print to be African—because everything we do is African by default. We’re dressing for our own generation.”
Other style crews around town seemed to echo the notion that the born-free generation isn’t bound to looks that read African to Western eyes. Take the three young men who do the style blog I See a Different You, who favor sixties-style mod suits. They aim to show their country through an unexpected lens—one you could basically call Mr. Porter Goes to Africa. “We don’t want Jo’burg to look like Brooklyn or Berlin,” says member Justice Mukheli, who along with his two cofounders works at a big advertising firm.
This kind of pride was well on display one night at Kitchener’s, a Braamfontein old-school bar–turned–cool-kid hangout, where seven members of the dance crew Vintage crammed into a booth. Their leader, the effervescently androgynous Lee-Ché Janecke, 21, his dyed-tangerine curls tumbling in his face and his navy blazer worn boxy over print short-shorts, explained their name: “We’re so on the cusp that when we look back on it all, we’ll be vintage.” The kids of Vintage, who live in townships scattered around the city center, have attained a measure of local fame thanks to spots on various TV dance shows, but they’re still scraping by with little money. They travel, like most of the city’s poor, via overcrowded “taxi” buses. When all else fails, they walk. And that can be dangerous.
Which explains what happened next. The Vintage crew stepped out of Kitchener’s and headed to a nearby public square to demonstrate some of their dance moves. But Janecke, usually so exuberant, stood still, looking oddly uncomfortable. “He got stabbed last night,” one of the other kids said, earning an annoyed glance of betrayal from Janecke. Sure enough, Janecke had been walking over the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge when he was held up; he resisted and was stabbed a number of times. The stitches were making it hard for him to move his upper body.