by Valerie Robinson
The neighbourhood of Fordsburg, west of the Johannesburg city centre, is a place of history and a wide diversity of cultures. But is there such a thing as a unique “Fordsburg Style”?
Aneesa Omar leans against the counter in her store in Fordsburg. A beautiful, bright head scarf frames her face, complementing her trendy tweed crop jacket, white shirt, skinny jeans and jewelled, pointed-toe pumps.
Omar is a designer of Islamic fashion for women, and the owner of Silk, a small but popular boutique on Lilian Road. Silk is famous as the home of the abaya – Arabic for cloak – a traditionally black, robe-like dress that leaves only the face, feet, and hands exposed.
It is worn for modesty, but its simple styling allows for great versatility of design and trimming, which new, young designers such as Omar are taking advantage of.
Once a simply functional garment that signalled religious devotion, the abaya has become a fashion item in its own right and Omar’s beaded, laced and embedded crystal designs are proof of her claim that “Fordsburg is at the forefront of Johannesburg’s Islamic fashion”.
Overshadowed by the skyscrapers of glass, concrete and steel, Fordsburg lies just three kilometres from the centre of Johannesburg. It is a vibrant neighbourhood, not so much a melting pot as a masala of colours and cultures and traditions. A masala is a heady mix of Indian spices often used in delicious curries and it springs to mind in the way Fordsburg tantalises and seduces your senses.
In Fordsburg, you will find a modern building with steel windows right next to a century-old building with peeling paint that reveals the layers of its now-fading colours from over the years. You will find an authentic Egyptian shisha or hookah lounge right next to a Pizza Hut.
But when it comes to fashion and culture, the heart of Fordsburg is Islamic and it beats to the rustle of Silk.
Omar runs her boutique, situated next to a hair salon in the same centre as the Fordsburg Chicken Licken, which she jokingly claims “takes up all the parking”. With her mother Shanaaz Patel, a dressmaker, and her father and sisters, they have made Silk into the epitome of glamour for Islamic fashion.
“It started with my mom 16 years ago,” says Omar. “She realised there are no nice abayas here. So she would go to dressmakers and get the fabric and get them to make it. Then friends asked her, can you do one for me?”
Omar has no formal fashion training and in fact studied a business degree. But through her mother, she became involved in the business of Islamic fashion. “I sketch with my mom, and then my mom is at the workshop where they do the cutting and putting the design into a garment. It is a lot of trial and error.”
Islamic clothing is often stereotyped in the Western view as being drab and restrictive. In truth, Islamic fashion has exploded onto the fashion scene in a big way. The British clothing chain H&M made headlines this year as Mariah Idrissi became their first hijab-wearing model.
Silk has been trading in Fordsburg since 2004. Omar explains that Islamic fashion thrives here because it is central, close to the freeway for visitors from out of town, and essential for supplies that are crucial to the practise of Islamic culture.
“You know with Islam,” says Omar, “when people eat halaal meat and all that, all the requirements are in Fordsburg. They have to stop here to go to the butcher and the grocer and get their spices. It just makes sense to be here.”
And it makes sense to shop for clothes here too. “Islamic fashion is breaking through,” says Omar.
“When we started 11 years ago, it was plain black abayas with not a lot of other detailing, mainly for religious purposes. So people wore them to cover up, and not really for fashion. Now they are very trendy. We have to change our designs every few weeks, and we have two fashion shows a year just to be able to keep up with the fashion.”
People come to Silk for the unique and trendy abayas and the head scarves, says Omar. But the “must have” item in Fordsburg, according to her, is the “high-low” hemline or the seemingly two-piece abaya. This style comes in a form that looks like a shirt and a skirt, giving the illusion of a two-piece, while retaining its essential modesty.
The low-high hemline is when the front of the skirt is shorter than the back and will come up to mid-calf. “It’s an abaya but it actually looks like a skirt,” says Omar. “It’s not so traditional, so they wear leggings underneath them.”
While small boutiques like Silk embody the distinctive Islamic style of Fordsburg, the big, bustling centre of the fashion trade here lies within view of Silk’s storefront in the Oriental Plaza. Of the 360 stores in the Oriental Plaza, 128 deal with fashion in some way.
Jerry’s is one of the busiest fabric shops in the Plaza. It is a family business, run by Jerry Sakoor and his son Mohammed.
Mohammed Sakoor says that most of his clients come from other areas of Johannesburg. “I think everyone still likes their own thing, you know. I mean, we get girls that come in and want something classic and then you get girls that come in and want something modern. There is no such thing as one person’s fashion. Everybody has their own thing.”
Right now in Jerry’s, a trio of young women are helping their friend choose the perfect Chantilly lace for her wedding veil. Oohing and aahing, they place one fabric after the other over the bride-to-be’s head. “I just knew the drive would be worth it,” says one of the women, as the bride-to-be signals her excited approval.
Fabric and fashion are a huge part of Fordsburg’s cultural identity and its thriving marketplace atmosphere. “There are a lot of tailors coming here, and they are starting to do designs,” says Sakoor. “People are getting more and more involved in fashion. I mean, if you walk around Fordsburg you will see new tailors, guys copying guys in France and all that, and they are doing pretty well.”
Even as far afield as Sandton, known as the richest square mile in Africa, the fashion influences of Fordsburg make themselves known. The luxurious Michelangelo Hotel is the venue for the twice-annual Silk fashion showcase. Omar explains that it is an invite-only event, to introduce clients to the new range and spoil them. “Even though it is a closed fashion show, people frequently try and crash the event,” says Omar.
“I think we were the first to do an Islamic fashion show. Before that, it was unheard of to put abayas on a runway. That just goes to show how fashion is changing.”
When you look around Silk, it becomes clear that Islamic fashion is full of colour and detail that goes back centuries, echoing the colours and traditions of Islamic art. The fabric ranges from the fluidity of velvet, which Omar explains is a major winter trend, to the coarse yet silky detail within the lace. “Currently, I would say, lace is in fashion and tweed as well,” comments Omar. The trend is reflected in her own outfit.
Fordsburg, she adds, is one of the few places in South Africa where Islamic fashion is still designed and tailored to suit the customer. “Not a lot of people manufacture the garments in South Africa,” says Omar. “They just buy them from Egypt or Dubai and sell them in places like Lenasia. That is what you get mostly. So I think Fordsburg is the only place where they are still manufacturing and designing, which obviously makes a difference, otherwise everyone else just has the same stock.”
One of the local suppliers of fabric to many Fordsburg stores is Nick Keves. He owns Superspun manufacturers, in nearby Albertskroon. He has spent most of his life in the textile business and, at the age of 70, he says he cannot quit as it is almost an addiction to him.
“There were a lot of big companies and one by one they closed down. Now what has taken place is there are a lot of smaller manufacturers who operate from home or garages or backyards or whatever who employ maybe five or six sewing machines.”
This smaller scale of infrastructure lies at the heart of Fordsburg’s fashion and material trade. “I think Fordsburg has always been traditionally, sort of the place for textiles,” says Keves, “and it still is to a large extent. It has kept pace with the times. They cater for every single thing you can think of.”
But the style of Fordsburg stretches further than velvet, Chantilly lace and beautiful head scarves. It is seen and felt in the culture and social habits of the people who live here. One of them is Zunaid Varachia, who owns a printing and graphics company in Fordsburg and has lived in the area his whole life.
“I’ve got a lot of friends of mine who say that there is a certain Fordsburg accent, that you could pick up in certain words,” says Varachia.
Asked what fashion statement item is most important in the area, Varachia replies: “Cars.” But it’s not so much about the car you drive, he adds. It’s about the size of your tyres. “The bigger the tyre, the better. So guys with a smaller car with a 17 or 18-inch tyre, that’s what speaks out.”
And, of course, whatever the size of your tyres, you have to hang out at the carwash if you want to be seen in style in Fordsburg. “There are a few carwashes in Fordsburg and it is quite a community hangout spot for young guys. On a Friday and Saturday afternoon you will find a lot of young guys hanging out at the carwash.”
As for men’s fashion in the neighbourhood, there’s a lot more to it than the traditional Islamic style. “Converse has always been a very popular thing,” says Varachia, referring to the trendy brand of sneakers.
“Another important thing about Fordsburg is that guys like their takkies to be pure white. Pure white sneakers are very important. You can have dirty clothes, but you can’t have dirty takkies.”
It’s that kind of attention to detail that dictates Fordsburg style, says Varachia. “You are not going to get that anywhere else, at the malls or the other areas. It is obviously what makes it unique.”
To understand Fordsburg style, says Omar, one has to note how diverse the area is, making it almost impossible to pinpoint. “Fordsburg is a melting pot of cultures, so I don’t think it has a specific style. Our clients prefer garments that are modern and trendy.”
And this seems to be a consensus across the board. Sakoor agrees, “You get everything here. The residents are very mixed. There is Chinese stuff, Pakistani stuff, Indian stuff, everything in terms of fabrics and designs is in Fordsburg.”
But even if Fordsburg’s style may prove elusive by definition, one thing is clear. Fordsburg has a sense of spice and soul that you won’t find anywhere else in Johannesburg. That is what makes this little enclave so rare and vibrant. It is timeless, and yet it embraces change and new trends. Islamic or Western, old or new, traditional or cutting edge, the style of Fordsburg … is Fordsburg.