JOHANNESBURG — This sprawling city is South Africa’s economic center, drawing people from across the country, the continent and beyond.
How its nearly six million residents adorn themselves is equally varied, with some choosing to reflect their dreams, while others striving to hold onto pieces of home or celebrate elements of this rapidly changing metropolis.
Maria McCloy, for example, came to town from Lesotho. A public relations agent turned fashion designer, she enjoys wandering the city streets, meeting Tsonga, Zulu and Ndebele beaders and artisans from all over Africa who call the city home.
Their creations are usually reserved for weddings, thanksgivings or coming-of-age ceremonies, but Ms. McCloy, 45, started wearing them to red carpet events or parties. And – a collector since her itinerant childhood, including London; Lagos, Nigeria; and Khartoum, Sudan – she’s added them to her collection of accessories, which are heavy with beads and brass, fabric and leather.
Ms. McCloy realized that wearing an Ndebele initiation apron as a necklace could be seen as appropriation, and said she works with artisans who know the culture and rely on their guidance.
After all, in a globalized economy where China dominates the fabric trade in Africa, where brass and metal pieces are increasingly imported from India and where local manufacturers struggle to survive, what is authentic in a city like Johannesburg?
Ms McCloy said she hated the word ‘authentic’. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of being African, she said, just as there isn’t one way residents should dress.
“It’s a stylish, evolving Pan-African, very rooted city,” said Ms McCloy. “Despite what has happened to people, apartheid and colonialism have not killed people’s self-love, creativity, sense of occasion and style.” Here are four more examples.
Chartered accountant and radio broadcaster
In rural KwaZulu-Natal, where Khaya Sithole grew up, the traditional headband he wears – an umqhele – is unobtrusive.
In Johannesburg, the goatskin band around his forehead arouses curiosity, delight or prejudice. “It already allows people to crystallize what your most likely identity will be,” said Mr Sithole, 35.
He wore an umqhele for the first time during a TV interview to hide the fact that he had to go to the hairdresser. To his surprise, the public seemed more interested in his accessory than in his economic analysis, so he said he is now wearing it in boardrooms and meetings to show that he can embrace his Zulu culture in a corporate space.
His most interesting comments and insults came from other black people, Sithole said, such as the politician who fired him for wearing a “dead goat” on his head. While black South Africans embrace traditional clothing and accessories on special occasions, in business or professional settings they seem to eschew cultural symbols, Sithole said.
“Far too many young people who look like me have just been conditioned” to feel uncomfortable in those kinds of situations, he said.
Stylist and manager of Wizards Vintage, a vintage clothing store
In a city that seems to define itself by its future, Karin Orzol clings to the past. “I’m a very big collector. Some call me an ec-lector,” said Ms. Orzol, 46. “Everything has meaning, I’m incredibly sentimental.”
It’s a trait she inherited from her mother, who keeps what she described as “a closet full of memories” — such as family memories and childhood drawings — and now gives it out as gifts.
The antique mesh wallet that Mrs. Orzol cherishes carries over a century of memories. Her great-grandmother carried the purse from England to South Africa in the second half of the 19th century. As the years passed and the family moved across the country, the purse was passed from daughter to daughter.
Her mother gave her the wallet when Mrs. Orzol was in her late twenties and about to embark on her own adventures. Today, she varies her look by attaching it to larger bags or changing the strap.
Much like her view of Johannesburg – a city of surprising depth if you know where to look, she said – Ms Orzol’s wallet doesn’t add up: “There are no rules; I wear during the day or at night. It’s not just for special occasions, it shows up at random, random times.”
Stylist and fashion salesman
It was the smiley faces that hung around New York rapper ASAP Rocky’s neck in an Instagram photo that caught Lethabo Pilane’s attention.
A saver, as a fashion retailer in Johannesburg is called, took advantage of an online community and found a retailer in the UK offering one of the same chains. The Evae+ piece cost 120 euros ($136), but shipping to South Africa cost an extra 70 euros. Still, he decided to go for it.
When the necklace arrived — with its butterflies and dice charms, topped off with yellow smiley faces — it matched Mr Pilane’s aesthetic and personality perfectly. “I am such a lucky man,” he said.
Pilane, 25, prefers to layer up the necklace with other colorful, unexpected pieces, such as clear beads or pearls, for a style that spans street and high-end, and fits right in with Maboneng, the trendy inner-city neighborhood he’s named home since 2017.
He came to Johannesburg the year before and left the mining town of Rustenburg to study fashion before dropping out to focus on the city’s growing thrift market. Now he spends his days in the city center, sorting through mountains of second-hand clothes shipped from the United States, Britain, China and Japan and selling them to everyone from students to professionals.
“You actually save the world” by buying second-hand, he said, “because when you come and look at all the damage fast fashion is doing to the world, it’s just crazy.”
Nesanet Abera Tumssa
Owner of Netsi Ethiopia Restaurant and Importer
When Nesanet Abera Tumssa left Addis Ababa in 2005, her mother caused her to carry sand from the Patriarchate Monastery of the Holy of Holies, the church in the center of Ethiopia’s capital where Ms. Tumssa was baptized.
The sand is contained in a pendant topped with a silver dome with an image of the Virgin Mary at the bottom. Her mother blessed me to protect me, said Ms. Tumssa, 43, and she now wears the pendant like a necklace.
South Africa was intended as a stopover to Ireland, where Mrs. Tumssa planned to study engineering. But she fell in love with Johannesburg’s frenzy and became part of the city’s large immigrant community.
Following in the footsteps of her mother, who runs a restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ms Tumssa opened a restaurant serving tourists and Johannesburg’s Ethiopian diaspora in search of a bottle of St. George’s beer. She also recognized that there was a market for Ethiopian coffee and food, and now imports ingredients for the city’s increasing number of Ethiopian restaurants.
Despite the attacks on African immigrants that erupt in the city every few years, Ms. Tumssa is determined to share Ethiopian culture with her residents. Johannesburg can be “aggressive,” she said, but it is also “freedom.”