Interview by Lesedi Ramonyane

Talented in their own right and even more so together, The Sartists are a collective that has proven they are a creative force to be reckoned with. Founded in 2012 by Wanda Lephoto and Kabelo Kungwane, the two set out to document their lives and style in post-apartheid South Africa. Since then, they’ve been joined by Xzavier Zulu and Andile Buka to create and share an authentic and contemporary African narrative through fashion and photography.

(Photo: Keagan Kingsley)

The collective has worked with a range of local and international brands that some could only dream of: Adidas, Heron Preston and Stüssy to name a few, while Standard Bank and Levi’s are the most recent additions to their portfolio. From shooting, directing, designing to producing their own clothing, it’s difficult to imagine what they can’t do. I had a chat with the guys to gain more perspective about their journey thus far and what we can expect from them in the next few months.

Q: For those who haven’t followed your journey, please introduce yourselves: who are you and the role you play within The Sartists?

Xzavier: Hi, I’m Xzavier and by the piece of paper I’d received from Vega: School of Brand

Leadership states I’m a “qualified” art director though I’ve looked to springboard myself into other forms of expression from my base of art direction. Within the Sartists itself, I essentially look to do my part to craft our voice and ensure all that we put out into the world speaks to something very well beyond ourselves.

Wanda: I think it is often hard to talk about yourself without having an out-of-body experience that looks at yourself outside of yourself but with that said I’d like to think of myself as collective whole of the many parts of my history which are informed by African spiritualism and tradition as well as my current self-informed by the ever-changing current of technology and innovation in things that interest me.

Q: What inspired the formation and expansion of the creative collective ?

Xzavier: For me, I’d always felt alone. I was in a creative college that didn’t necessarily understand, foster and more so accept my voice. My form(s) of creativity. Odd how that works, huh? Anyway, Tumblr was my outlet, my confirmation that I wasn’t alone and better yet there were people who valued my thoughts, voice, perspective and I finally saw pieces of myself in people around the world that made it all okay. There (Tumblr) is where Wanda messaged me, we met up in town, later met up with the Kabelo and we’ve been friends since. I’d never felt like people saw me, all of me, for all that I am, before I met them and for that I love them. We fight, laugh, eat, struggle, grow together. I’m an only child with three brothers.

(Photo: Hanro Havenga)

Q: What influences/inspires your work?

Xzavier: There’s a plethora of people, brands, subcultures, etc. we could individually and collectively mention as influences and inspirations for our voice though it goes beyond that as it’s more so the need to do more, say more, reflect more and grow our shared understanding of identity as an idea and representation that pours into all our forms of creativity.

Wanda: I think we all grew up with different backgrounds but the need to reflect our times and to highlight often neglected stories of our country and even our continent is something that gives our creative edge; the need not to forget where we’re from but rather celebrate it. We’re born in an era where those that have paved the way are often neglected and under-celebrated and that is our main source of inspiration that informs who we are and what we’d like to do.

Q: Your favourite campaign/piece of work you’ve done thus far and why?

Xzavier: The Stussy “Our Tribe” lookbook. Hands down! The Levi’s and Heron Preston lookbooks are close behind though “Our Tribe” is dear to my heart and for what it represents, how it came together from beginning to end, the time in our lives that it happened in, it’s all special.

Wanda: All the projects for me are important and inform different conversational topics in their own way, so in some way all the projects are my favourite; the “Sports Series” because it communicates a topic on the understanding of colonialism and apartheid and where blackness stood or still stands within that framework. “Our Tribe” because it addresses a conversation of cultural fusion, all the brand campaigns because they teach you about business and how cruel people’s intentions can be but overall on the beautiful side of it, what collaborations can do and mean. Our current projects with Standard Bank which addresses a different audience and trying to give back to a culture we’ve always taken from to my collection, the business of art and what it means to run a business, spend your own money and pay yourself; so all the projects are my favourite because there are different lessons in each which I couldn’t have learnt otherwise.

(Photo: Keagan Kingsley)

Q: You’ve done some incredible work with some major brands such as Adidas, Brooklyn Circus, Heron Preston and Stüssy to name a few, how have you managed to stay true to your brand and what challenges have you encountered along the way?

Xzavier: Our intentions when we create – that’s quite simply the difference. I think some of our biggest challenges are infrastructure, resources and finances. It could very well be the same for everybody in this day and age – depending on your journey, though we’ve come quite far without those things – with the support of friends and family, and have only become better creatives and people for it when looking to share our voice.

(Photo: Hanro Havenga)

Q: Speaking of brands, a good amount of your work has included Adidas. Does the brand hold any particular significance among you?

Xzavier: I’ll say this: a few months before the adidas x Pharrell “SUPERSHELL” Campaign between the three of us, we’d gone to Studio88 in Braamfontein to buy Superstars and we quite simply couldn’t afford a pair for each of us. They were retailing for R649 at the time. Because of the shared intentions and ideals of the group we bought two pairs of Superstars for us to then shoot and create multiple shoots. As life would have it, weeks later we were offered the SUPERSHELL campaign, were told they’d rather replace Pharrell with our faces for the store front- which locally for ANY brand and sportswear brand was unheard of, garnered a slew of international interest, and shortly afterwards I packed my bags, moved to Cape Town with all my savings and began interning there. Almost two years later, I’m proud to still be working within the Drei Streifen. I’m proud of the people we grew into throughout the campaign and beyond!

Wanda: One of the best South African soccer players to ever come out of this country Ace Ntsoelengoe once got a shoe design and deal with adidas between the years 1984/85, that for me is significant. adidas is and will always be family.

Q: Considering your contribution to youth/creative culture in SA, what’s your take on its current state? What misconceptions do you think brands and those looking from the outside in have about it?

Xzavier: Truthfully, I really hate talking about our youth/creative culture in South Africa, as I usually get worked up and I become quite dark, cold and harsh about it all because this is all we got. Between those calling themselves curators just because all their pictures on Instagram are in three shades, features delicious monsters and they have “influencer” in their bio… FUCK. RIGHT. OFF. YOU LOOK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, we need to see you, who you are, your identity. The world already has Aleali May, Travis $cott and Virgil, why the fuck do you want to be a carbon -copy of any of them? For free shoes and clothes from brands you believe will validate you to us? Please. I’m grown; between you having nothing to offer me but either your beauty or purple dreads and Vans Sk8 Hi’s, I’m not sold. It’s taken some time though I was quite hypercritical of “the youth,” for not allowing emerging creatives to learn from their mistakes, understanding that their choice of mimicking international artists was a means of them searching for their own voice and now instead thought to rather guide those that looked to me for advice and support. That’s the journey I’ve chosen. In regards to brands and their hand in culture: it’s not entirely the fault of the brand, as it’s the brand who know very well that they’re understanding of their consumer and the average South African may be outdated and their answer is hiring an agency that are specialists in (x) for their guidance and creative execution to communicate to that said consumer. That being said, is it not then the fault of the agency when campaigns fall short on execution, message, etc.? I.e. Nasty C and Mercedes Benz botched Photoshop execution of their “aspirational” campaign that I silently believe was supposed to be a takedown of the brands global A$AP Rocky execution. For the good: there’s a lot though, Black Twitter inspires me and those I see creating their own path for the greater good through their own voice give me hope i.e. Pap Culture, Sibu Mpanza, Dear Ribane, Noirwave, FAKA, Gabrielle Kannemeyer, Lazi Mathebula, Urban Mosadi, The Bubblegum Club, SELFI, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Hanro Havenga, Book Of Swag, and the list goes on.

Wanda: Personally my opinion to this conversation is I’m only looking forward to my own collection and the next collection, nothing else.

Q: Your influence in the creative space is unique in that you’ve managed to use it as a springboard to create product i.e. the Adidas suit, Wanda’s clothing brand, the Levi’s collab etc. How did these come about? Is this something that was always a goal when the collective was formed?

Xzavier: When I look at the brothers and I, I’m proud of our intentions when we create and the shared sentiment: in a time of faces, we’ve chosen to rather be voices. Those two things, I believe will continue to guide our voice throughout the coming years and already reflect in all that we do individually and collectively.

Wanda: I’m always only interested in the next design and the next collection.

(Photo: Keagan Kingsley)

Q: Whose (brands/people) are on your collaboration wish list?

Xzavier: I’d definitely like to continue our Levi’s “50S” (Sartists) customization labour of love and add to the garments already created like our 50S patchwork beret, Engineered kimono, patchwork durag, etc. to hopefully one day exhibit them in global and local platforms. Lord knows, we don’t do that here or foster that experimentation amongst our creative industry. So it’s for those that look at their environment(s) differently to share their perspective. Additionally, Alpha Industries, adidas, Nike, Kangol, A Bathing Ape, HBA, Needles, Nadine Ijewere, Rizzoli Publications, Sacai, SELFI (local) and Wanda Lephoto (local), to name a few. There are so many people I follow on Instagram that inspire me every day and I’d like to work alongside, so the list is truly quite long.

*Side note: Wanda, stays sleeping on me and all my ideas and doesn’t take me seriously when I say I want to collab with him so if any of you can talk sense to him, please do so, help me. Thank you in advance! FW18, maybe?

Wanda: Dear Ribane, Lazi Mathebula, Urban Mosadi and Xzavier Zulu for our next collection.

(Photo: Keagan Kingsley)

Q: What can we expect next from you guys?

Xzavier: I really don’t know… For what feels like a lifetime ago, I was quite anal about planning and ensuring our calendar was filled with projects, test shoots, etc. and for now I take things as they come and do what feels right at that particular moment. So no, no plans here, but whatever comes to mind will be done.

Wanda: The next collection.