In an interesting Victorian building in the centre of downtown Cape Town is a cultural hub of fashion, music, politics and philosophy – a place where thinkers are trying to change the landscape and make a difference.
At street level there is a shop, but if you are allowed upstairs you will find a multitude of spaces and people; a design studio, a performance and exhibition room, and an independent radio station called The Eye. On any given day, you might find a group of academics discussing a political issue, a young DJ broadcasting music, and a gaggle of young people talking fashion and films.
The Eye, founded by Jon Savage, is a highly targeted and curated radio station that plays host to some of the best independent DJ’s – both local and international and all of them playing some fantastic music. They are young, ambitious idealists and believe that independent, unbiased digital radio is the way forward.
In recent years, The Eye has developed a portable radio studio for use in schools and community centres, while its recording studio, the largest in South Africa, is free to use for up-and-coming artists and regularly hosts collaborative sessions intended to give a platform to new performers.
It’s all part of an effort to democratize the medium – Jon says that The Eye is really about creating a bridge between the opportunities and chances that people need, and the organisations, institutions, and people that can provide them. It’s about telling stories and, just as importantly, making sure they’re heard.
In this mission he’s joined by Jason Storey, an early investor in The Eye and a frequent collaborator with Jon. A self-described ‘nerd’, he’s the man responsible for creating Unknown Union, a fashion brand that wants to communicate African ceremonies, philosophy and history. Like with The Eye, storytelling is the goal – apparel just happens to be Unknown Union’s medium.
Jason believes that fashion is at root a communications tool, and an underused one at that. He sees Unknown Union as a way to celebrate peoples, cultures, and art forms that have been overlooked. Indeed, he says that in the early years ‘word of mouth and print were our primary marketing vehicles, since much of our energy is spent designing and creating a collaborative space for art, community, design and discussion.’
I am inclined to agree with him – the clothes we wear aren’t just about looking good (although it surely matters) – they’re a signaling tool, a visual story we tell about ourselves to the outside world. That’s why brand matters so much – the difference between a T-shirt with Supreme on the front and a blank one is the story the wearer wants to tell the viewer about themselves.
The stories that Unknown Union and its clothes tell are deeply embedded in place and time. They draw from the vibrancy and history of the cultures that make up South Africa. Perhaps ironically for a clothing brand, Unknown Union isn’t all about what’s on the surface. In their own words, ‘our collections are born from the art, culture and community that surround us.’ Jason works closely with an Oxford University-based history professor to make sure that his collections are exhaustively researched and authentic.
Take their latest collection of coats made from Basotho Blankets. The pieces are produced in collaboration with the Aranda Textile Mill, the only place in the world that has the license to make the blankets (granted by the Lesotho royal family). Queen Victoria gifted a blanket to King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho who then popularised and personalised them. They have stories woven into them symbolising moral values or badges of the brave.
That Unknown Union is the only brand which has ever had the rights to use Basotho blankets tells us something about just how deeply rooted it is in the cultures from which it draws, and how successfully it has managed to do so.
When I visited, the collection that was in the store was based around the Chokwe tribe in the Congo and, specifically, their Sona art – drawings in the sand where they weave patterns on a grid in the sand with a finger and do not lift their finger or retrace the same line. It makes a beautiful pattern which Jason works into the fabric of the garments. Paulus Gerdes wrote a paper on the drawings and the way in which they expressed a grasp of complex geometry in central Africa much earlier than historians had thought.
In a place where the past has sometimes been erased or elided, Paulus saw in the impermanence of these sand drawings a deep history, and Jason’s clothes are encouraging us to read that history.
His achievements are made all the more impressive when you learn that Jason is untrained. He in fact moved to Cape Town from New York after a career as a lawyer, deciding to open a store importing American heritage and streetwear brands. He started the small capsule collection which would eventually grow into Unknown Union in 2014.
It was unsurprising then when Jason told me that he loves to learn and to challenge himself. He taught himself to sew by buying second hand suits in thrift stores, unpicking and deconstructing them and then putting them back together again.
‘To be honest, I’m a nerd at heart. I grew up surrounded by the study of art (my father was an art dealer) and with a passion for learning. I love to read about everything . . . art, culture, history, science and how it shapes societies and people.’
What unites the efforts of Jon and Jason is their belief in the power of art as communication, as a platform and a prism through which to express culture, tell history and create change. The essence of authenticity is that it cannot be manufactured – authenticity is found and inhabited – it is not made.
This is what makes Jon and Jason’s efforts so powerful – they’re not starting with brand and working backwards to a sense of realness. Instead, they’ve begun with people; with communities and cultures and built outwards, spiralling toward success with a genuine mission driving them the whole way.
Jason and Jon’s story and the stories of the founders of corner store CPT are more important now than ever before. South Africa now has a President in place who has a stellar track record in commerce. Cyril Ramaphosa, I believe, will try and eradicate corruption and will drive the economy – making sure that tourism stays at the top of the agenda. He wants small business to thrive and grow and he is talking about putting in the mechanisms to make this happen. He is determined for South Africa to become a tech hub – the Silicon Valley of Africa, which can only be a good thing. He wants to honour the memory of his mentor, Nelson Mandela, who too encouraged commerce and entrepreneurship.
It is a tough call but with the next creative generation like Jon and Jason, there is absolutely no reason for it not to happen – let’s not forget that Elon Musk is a boy from a small town in the Transvaal, Pretoria!