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Afrogrunge: The Fashion Label That Blends Grunge and African Aesthetics

Author: Themba Kriger
Photos: Matthew Wareley

Anita Hlazo, the creative force behind the aesthetic-turned-fashion label, Afrogrunge, greets me outside her home studio in Delft South, a township next to Cape Town International Airport.

With stretched earlobes, dramatic eyeliner, and her hair in short twists under a grey beanie, and dressed in a blue and white check crop over a long-sleeved fishnet crop top, that’s paired with a denim dress, it’s immediately clear that Anita embodies the aesthetic that serves as the foundation of her designs.

During her teenage years living with her Grandparents in Gugulethu, Anita got into grunge music. This Seattle-centred alternative rock scene was popularised by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.

Embracing the scene’s aesthetic of thrift second-hand clothing and riding a skateboard she had bought herself, Anita found herself at odds with the general culture of her peers. “I didn’t fit in and wanted to belong somewhere.”

This wanting to belong set the foundations for what would become her label. “I needed to create an identity for myself which became Afrogrunge.”

Despite these creative leanings, Anita hadn’t considered fashion until she had a job-shadowing project in Grade 11 and decided to learn more about the industry. While looking for somewhere in the fashion industry to job shadow, she spoke to the fashion department at CPUT where she would eventually study fashion design.

With no background in fashion, Anita spent her first year learning all the basics. “I learned how to sew, make patterns, everything that has to do with the design I learned in my first year. They treated us like we didn’t know anything great because I didn’t know anything!”

As a black girl into grunge, Anita was also looking on the internet for others like her, with no luck. In response, she decided to create her own black grunge content. “In my first year, I started a Tumblr blog, dressed up, took pictures of myself, and hashtagged it Afrogrunge. It started as a box I wanted to fit into.“

Anita’s time and CPUT helped her learn the basics of the fashion industry but also helped her solidify the idea behind Afrogrunge. ”I used to go with [the late] Ben Moyo to events, and he’d take photos of me. This girl once told me she’d always seen me in spaces but never knew what I was doing and when I was studying and releasing collections, it started to make sense what Afrogrunge is.”

Finally, in 2018 Anita launched Afrogrunge as a fashion label inspired by her Xhosa heritage and love for grunge.

While her fashion degree gave her the skills she needed to start creating her own designs, once in the business world, Anita found her approach to creating shifting. “In school, I did conceptual work, mood boards, explained to lectures and then did. That would take a year.

In business being silent for a year doesn’t work; you always need money to produce. I will be conceptualizing more because it’s a part that I’ve lost. After all, I’m always centered around orders and adapting designs around demand.”

She gives the example of a two-piece that was originally brown and denim. “Instead of designing something new people said they liked the two-piece but wanted it in black so I’d do that. There’s never been a time in the last four years where I did it like at school.“

Afrogrunge has been featured in fashion editorials and worn by some of South Africa’s most recognizable faces. This includes her collaboration with artist and rapper Bü Kihang on her 4th-year collection that made it to the finals of the SA Fashion Week Emerging Creatives, resulting in the collection being showcased in Johannesburg.

She also worked with influencer/character model Abongwe who wore an Afrogrunge piece to Afropunk 2018 and whose portrait from the event, taken by Trevor Stuurman, was featured in Vogue. She’s also dressed Moonchild Sanelly several times, with the singer wearing her denim outfit on the Real Goboza show and the two collaborating on an outfit for her “Yebo Teacher” music video.

Some of her proudest achievements are appearances in fashion editorials for magazines both local and international, such as Cosmopolitan (she’s had three!), Vogue Italia, Mission Statement magazine, L’Officiel Arabia, and Gmaro magazine.

Over the years, Anita has learned that running a label isn’t all creative work. “I do everything myself and can’t be creative all the time. I must respond to emails, ensure my customer service is good, and build my website. As I move, I learn. I’m still trying to work on a formula, but at the moment what people respond to the most I try to push that, sell it more, and try to be in people’s faces as much as possible instead of keeping to myself because everything is about momentum and hype.”

As she no longer has a physical store, being online is essential for the sustainability of Afrogrunge. “For me, everything happens online. I sell online. Before my website, I’d market my stuff on Facebook and Instagram. All my marketing is done via social. Purchasing is done through the website. Whatever Afrogrunge is now is through the online space. I’ve only been in shops since last year.”

Anita can meet her business and personal needs with her internet sponsored by Ikeja. “I was super grateful; having Wifi helped with work and entertainment. I also play games on my phone. I’d spend more on data just for gaming than Ikeja monthly costs.”

Having learned to budget more carefully and with the future of fashion likely more automated, Anita focuses on sustainability and the human element in the creation process to differentiate her brand from the big brands, using upcycling to let her create clothes without paying for materials.

“I had the idea for a while but was scared because clothing brands always have to have something new, but why not create from existing garments, thrifted items, or my old samples? Use my old stuff and build up on that and create a product without spending money. This also speaks to grunge culture.”

As Anita works on solidifying this new offering, she hopes those wearing her clothing will feel a sense of relation. “At first wanted everyone to wear it but realized that doesn’t make sense. Even if now almost everything is accessible and the alternative look is trending.

My goal is that when people buy from me, they leave with a sense that they couldn’t get this anywhere else; it represents what they like, and they are happy they got it locally.”