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From Plastic Bags To Haute Couture, Designer Celebrates South African Heritage

A haute couture outfit made entirely from the plaid plastic bags one usually finds at dollar stores puts Zoolander’s “Derelicte” to shame.

Just when you thought the term “recycled clothing” had lost its cache, along comes a collaboration full of inspiration. Recently, designer and conceptual artist Jenny Lai of NOT Clothing, searching for something fresh to inform her newest work, made the pilgrimage to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she synced up with photographer and filmmaker Chris Saunders, whose fascinating documentation of South African subculture had caught her eye. This past September, the two unveiled their fused passions with an exhibit, “NOT x Chris Saunders,” at the WALLPLAY international space. The show brought together photography, video, fashion, and global culture in a colorful melange, equal parts street style documentation, art project, and reuse initiative. As Lai mentioned to Collectively this week, the inventive textiles used were the result of various shooting locations throughout the city and the creatives who inspired them. “The materials that we used were based on the collaborative artists,” said Lai. “Many of them do use what is available to them.” In this case, the surroundings were a busy Jo’burg neighborhood, a bottle recycling plant, and other unlikely spots, the group using found materials like chicken wire, brown paper bags, and floor sweepings from local barbershops to help create clothing and installations.


The most impressive part of the exhibition by far is the fashion. Lai, tapping Dennis Chuene of Vernac Bags, created the “China Bag” jacket, a haute couture outfit made entirely from the ubiquitous plaid plastic bags one usually finds at dollar stores and laundromats. This stunning haute apparel line puts Zoolander’s Derelicte to shame and could easily pass for “real” department store fashion. In addition to this particular collaboration, Vernac has been known to recycle these bags into backpacks and clothing.

Below, Saunders and Lai created a short film of the project featuring interpretative movement performed by dancer Manthe Ribane, known for her work with South African “rap-rave” Zef band Die Antwoord. We celebrate this truly stunning work that captures both the joy and hardship of living in one of South Africa’s most diverse, and economically polarized, cities.

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