Words: Mercia Tucker
Photography: Haneem and Imraan Christian
Creative Direction: Imraan Christian
Assisted by: Justin February and Waseem Noordien
Cover design: Mzo Gcwabe
Hip hop and urban culture isn’t averse to the concept of the powerbroker. Where artists tend to get the lions’ share of the spotlight and attention in an industry that favours the flamboyant, the role of the “connect” is one that is largely overlooked. Hayden Manuel is one such role-player that has kept the cogs of many a wheel in the ‘business of cool’ turning.
“I don’t consider myself a creative in a way because I don’t have a specific art platform but I have an eye for great things so I consider myself– I have good creative direction and I understand the business of creativity. But do I consider myself a creative in the traditional sense? No,” he says of his role in SA creative spheres.
Cape Town born and bred, he says “Growing up, because I never really looked at my career and I never thought I’d end up where I ended up so I never really had a creative outlook on things, I just liked what I liked. I liked music, I was a super, super, super hip hop nerd. I was into graffiti; back in the day, that’s one of the elements of hip hop. I used to tag shit, just get up to wild naughty shit. And it was a lot of that going on, there was a lot of break dancing. There was a lot of DJs, there was a lot of kids that sketched and were talented.”
“This was pre-internet time, this was late 90s/early 2000s. So the prevalence of being a creative as a career, that wasn’t really on the table as much as it is now. So if you were talented, if you were an artist, if you could draw or something, it was something you did on the side. It wasn’t like you would pursue that as a career. I think we expressed ourselves in… the big creative expression was fashion, how we dressed and stuff. You didn’t really need to be talented, you just needed to know how to be able to put things together (which is a talent in itself) but it was a more accessible platform, I guess, than drawing or music or something like that.”
His natural love for hip hop coupled with his interest in business and marketing led him to researching different careers in the music industry. “When information becomes more freely available you start seeing who the people are that do this, you start studying them, the Steve Stoutes of the world. I was like OK, that’s someone I’d like to be one day.”
The son of high school teachers, his parents placed a high value on education. He did his post-grad education at AAA School of Advertising. It was there that he was introduced to the world of blogging and truly began his journey in the content creation space. “I used to be super into music, I used to get download links early, all the clothes, and all that stuff. The white girls at varsity were like ‘Hayden, you should get a blog.’ I’m like ‘what the f*** is a blog?’” hakesythefatcat.blogspot.com was born soon after. He started Bitches Must Know with Paul Ward and Nicci Saint Bruce after that.
“I was like a leader at the time in terms of creating content. We’d throw parties and we’d shoot it, Paul Ward would shoot it and it would be up that same night. People were like ‘Yo, that’s crazy!’”
On Nicci and Paul’s role in his career trajectory, he says “It was just like, I suppose a marriage of the three different worlds and people fucking with it hard. That’s the thing that launched, I think, all of our careers and took it to the next level.”
Studying marketing and brand communications in varsity, he ended up dropping out of varsity because “things weren’t working out”. His first stint in employment was temping as an admin clerk at a private bank. His first job with ‘taxable income’, however, was as an intern at a digital marketing agency before he rose through the ranks and worked with some of the biggest brands as a senior digital content producer.
Currently the Sportstyle Marketing Manager at PUMA South Africa, he says of his growth, “People respect that because they see you grow and they can’t question your credentials because you really started from the bottom and you put it in the work. And yeah, yeah, the reputation [is there], everybody knows I’m the plug. But if I left, and I went to another position tomorrow outside of sneakers, the reputation is still there because there’s a clear track record of work, and you can’t take that away.”
His weekly temping wages going towards scouring outlet stores for unique and original wares, he built up his collection of sneakers and apparel over the years to a treasure trove that resulted in him being the first non-athlete brand ambassador for Nike. The collaboration came about through working on a project with the consumer insights agency Instant Grass who came to film at his home. “They went to my room, going through my collection, and they sent it to Nike. Nike was like ‘Yo, we didn’t even know people like this exist in Africa. We’re in Cape Town next week, let’s link.’ And the rest was history.”
The relationship continued for nine years before he began working for PUMA and moved his sizeable collection of Nike and other brands’ sneakers into the storage of his mom’s house. His feet now exclusively adorned with PUMA sneakers, he says of his move to the sportswear giant, “It wasn’t even that hard of a decision.” Given the chance to be a part of a team in one of the most exciting times in its development was too much to pass up. “It’s one thing being cool with a brand and stuff, and wearing their shoes, but when they actually say they want to help you shape the future and they put so much trust in you, and they say ‘we see you for the longest time, everything you’ve done is the right way, and you’re the guy we want, would you be keen?’ I was like ‘f*** yeah, let’s go!’”
What’s the next step for him; what’s the evolution of Hayden, the Plug? “For me, I always get a kick out of people saying ‘why the f*** did you do that?’” Apart from the thrill of surprising people with his career moves, his bucket list includes working at PUMA’s global office and at a high-end fashion house like Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga.
His passion for high-end brands has a personal link. “My grandmother used to work for a company called House of Monatic. They’re still around now, they do C-Squared and Carducci. Because of the political situation, she went to work in that factory. Eventually she worked her way up into a buyer [position] in her 50s. At that time, House of Monatic had the production contract for YSL. So they were making YSL shit in Cape Town. Its wild, not many people know that. That’s like late 80s, early 90s. We stayed with her for a bit and she would always bring these textiles home and talk about fabrics and bring samples. So theres a lot of old vintage YSL samples that my sister and my mom has, proper old school shit. Just through that, I’ve always been interested in it. So I’d like to do a stint in a high-end fashion house.”
One of the more revered members of Cape Town’s streetwear community, he rejects the idea of being viewed as a figurehead of sorts. “I don’t have the need to have that association that I’m the OG. That’s not a thing, that’s not why I do what I do. I just genuinely like this shit. I like music, I like sneakers, I just happen to be [part of the culture] in a time where that’s the wave. I don’t have that need or that feeling for recognition. When I was younger, maybe, but now as I get older I’m a lot more comfortable in… I’m a lot more self-actualised. So you can’t take anything away from me, you can’t deny me. I don’t have to say it, those who know, know. I don’t need to be seen as the man, my credentials is there. You might not see it on a surface level but if you wanna progress in this world, you’re gonna come across me one day in some way.” At this point I’m living for the humble flex.
“I’m perfectly okay with just being a contributor to the culture man, I love this shit. And culture dies when all these dudes try to hang on to it and protect it. You gotta let this thing live and you gotta let it evolve and get passed down to the next, and to the next, and to the next. And I know that this isn’t something that I created. I might have been the one of the first to participate and localise it but I didn’t create this shit. I might make this shit look mad phly but there were people before me, and there’s gonna be people after me. It’s just a natural progression.”