Inside the world's best-dressed subcultures

Inside the world’s best-dressed subcultures

Written by Els van der Plas, CNN

This is an edited excerpt from a new book called “Fashion Tribes: Global Street Style” by Daniele Tamagni, published by Abrams.

Els van der Plas is the former director of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development and general director of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam.

“Tell me the truth, boy, am I losing you for good/We used to kiss all night, but now there’s just no use.” So sings American pop star Solange Knowles, surrounded by well-dressed African men in the music video for her hit song Losing You (2012).

These are Congolese dandies, sapeurs, winding up in a popular music video that won awards for song, video, and styling. Inspired by photographer Daniele Tamagni’s book “Gentlemen of Bacongo,” a photographic classic that portrays the men’s long tradition of public fashion, Solange, with the contribution of Tamagni and Dixy Ndalla, picked up the sapeurs and their style in London and Cape Town. And soon after, African street culture and its protagonists ended up in a video watched by more than 12 million people.

Often, fashion is not created and defined in ateliers, but on the street. Think of postcolonial Kinshasa, London in the sixties, and Tokyo in the eighties. At those times, in those places, being cool was the thing to do. And many of the people who lived there made it their goal to be trendsetters. Some wanted attention, social status, and respect, while others wanted to express their own political views and artistic drives.

In its postcolonial period, during the 1960s and ’70s, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, was a hopeful place but desperately poor. Its people had nothing and rebelled against their colonial masters, yet at the same time, they—especially the men—used the colonial look to acquire social status and draw attention.

They exaggerated the Western suit, using clothing to confront their past and gain good standing—honor, respect—in an uncertain future. They called themselves the “sapeurs.” The acronym SAPE stands for La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People).

In the sixties, London was relatively rich, and in those postwar years it had a young population that wanted to express its political and social opinions and revolt against the older generation. To that end they created their own look and style, as well as an inspiring music scene to go with it.

In the eighties, Tokyo youth rebelled against the establishment by choosing to spend a few hours a week dressed as rock ‘n’ rollers with transistor radios on a blocked-off two-lane road, effectively denying access for many other people. They lived in a fantasy world that revolved around music, looking good, and being cool.

By dressing up and showing off in flashy outfits on the street, these people got attention, prestige, and power in what were often very poor neighborhoods. At the same time, they inspired other young people to express themselves creatively and independently. And this was frequently accompanied by social and political messages as well

Looking good, being cool, or making a statement (or a combination of the three) and the search for respect and identity are elements shared by these people worldwide. They use the street as a theater, a public catwalk — or a T, as the Africans call it—a boulevard on which to parade. Artistic motives play a major role in this public form of life; at the end of the day, standing out means attracting the gaze.

Reflecting the gaze

What many of these subcultures have in common is that they imitate the West, but with a twist. They look back, as it were. Just as the colonists gazed at them for centuries, they now gaze back. They use, ridicule, criticize, and honor them. Take, for example, the aggressive-looking metalheads who populate the Botswana rock scene—cowboys wearing leather suits and silver buckles in the African heat. Tamagni wants to record the clothing, the style, and the codes of their context and environment.

The metalheads are mostly youths from poor backgrounds who want to show that they are someone. They mix eighties heavy metal and Western cowboy style with African accents, which results in a tough, cool, and intimidating demeanor. As with the sapeurs, it is a matter of appearance, identity, and gaining respect. And at the same time it is a challenging of social and cultural stereotypes and prejudices, especially for the female metalheads, whose appearances tend to violate the established norms.

Fashion is not created and defined in ateliers, but on the street.

Some subcultures were picked up by the West, but perhaps in unexpected ways. As previously mentioned, Solange Knowles appropriated the Congolese street style for her music video, which was filmed in various townships in Cape Town with the help of Congolese sapeurs and Tamagni. It is the West looking back to those who look back and then adapt that look to their own taste. Subculture becomes mainstream.

Knowles was inspired by the music video for Janet Jackson’s “Got ’til It’s Gone” (1997), which, although it was set in Cape Town during the apartheid period, was actually filmed in Los Angeles. Inspired by images from African photographers Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), Samuel Fosso (1962-), and J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014), we see echoes of those images in the mise-en-scène of her video. Photographs of subcultures inspire fashion, and political messaging becomes a trending topic.

Embracing tradition

On the other side of the world, the opposite is happening. In Bolivia, women are opting for their own tradition. They wear traditional Bolivian clothing and are choosing the same profession as many of their men—wrestling. The male wrestlers dress like Batman and other Western comic-book heroes; the women go for traditional attire. Their motives are the same—to be seen, to establish a place for themselves, to create identity.

In fact, in Bolivia, women used to function on the very margin of the margin; they stood behind their men, who, coming from a deprived background, chose wrestling and made something out of it by dressing as superheroes. Yet it’s the women—proudly in action in the ring and with their men—on which Tamagni focuses. For these women, the code is tradition. The way they look attests to courage and an awareness of history.

For these women, the code is tradition. The way they look attests to courage and an awareness of history.

Clearly, for many of these groups, a focus on the West is important. However, Tamagni always shows that each culture is unique and significant in its local context. For example, even the Cubans he photographed on the streets of Havana wear T-shirts and other items from well-known brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Armani, despite the fact that the average income there is around twenty dollars per month.

But Cubans have little more than their bodies. As with the sapeurs, their bodies are the only things that they can be certain of, and so they decorate them with Western brands as a show of status and parade them through the streets.

Tamagni photographs these people with respect for who they are, where they live, and what they dream of for the future. He spends days with them to gain their trust, which allows him to take the photographs he wants. And while his subjects’ clothes make a statement, the environment often plays a leading part in the complete image.

A dilapidated house, a backyard with clothing hanging on a wash line, a barking dog running around—it all shows that ordinary life, their reality, is never far away. But, at the same time, it does not stop them from dreaming and hoping for a bright future. You never know, you might end up in an American pop star’s music video.

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If Sanjay Gandhi had lived

If Sanjay Gandhi had lived

Early on the morning of June 23, 1980, Sanjay Gandhi drove to the Delhi Flying Club to test out a two-seater plane, a Pitts S-2A, along with a flying instructor. Diving and looping in aerobatic manoeuvres, he lost control, and the plane crashed near Teen Murti house. He and his co-pilot were killed instantly. Sanjay was 34 and left behind a young widow and a three-and-a-half-month-old son. Six months earlier, after adroit backroom machinations that wrecked the Janata Party government, he had been elected MP from Amethi and reanointed his mother as “Empress of India”.

Hearing the news, Mrs Gandhi rushed to the scene and scrabbling amidst the wreckage, fished out Sanjay’s watch from his mutilated remains. An image after his funeral, stark and telling, by Raghu Rai published in India Today that week foretells the future of the Gandhi dynasty. Indira Gandhi’s face is crumpled in tears; her elder son Rajiv, his arm around her, supports her helpless limp body. “Mummy needs me,” was Rajiv’s simple reply to friends who, alongside his wife’s protestations, asked why he was plunging into the turbulent world of politics.

But what if Sanjay had lived? It would have been his branch of the Gandhis that ruled a different Congress Party, spawning harsher, malevolent politics. It would have been another kind of country.

Sunil Sethi @1999

Never a votary of parliamentary democracy, Sanjay Gandhi would have taken over from his mother as President of the Republic. In late 1976, as the horrors of the Emergency-with its forced sterilisations and slum-clearance campaigns that brought untold misery-peaked, and Mrs Gandhi, assailed by doubts, decided to call elections, Sanjay strongly resisted the move. He wanted the Emergency to continue, with Parliament to be replaced by a constituent assembly that would switch to a presidential system. His followers in the state legislatures of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh had passed resolutions to that effect. An ardent Sanjay-ite, Bansi Lal, then defence minister, told Mrs Gandhi’s cousin B.K. Nehru, “Get rid of all this election nonsense… Just make our sister president for life and there’s no need to do anything else.”

India under Sanjay would have been like the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos-a calibrated dictatorship, with thousands of political prisoners in jail, control over armed forces and the media, and an economy propped up by dollops of US dollars and huge World Bank handouts. On top of his hate list were Communists (“I don’t think you’d find richer or more corrupt people anywhere,” he told an interviewer); he loathed all his mother’s Leftist advisers and friends. Although an admirer of free markets, he was a failed entrepreneur-his Maruti enterprise never produced a marketable car, and proved a flimsy cover for a growing scandal that embroiled the prime minister’s office.

The phrase coined to describe the Filipino dictator’s kinky wife Imelda was “Imeldific”. Implacable, whimsical Maneka Gandhi as India’s First Lady would have been dubbed “Manekafique”. The freckled 19-year-old he married in 1974 had attitude: Maneka likened Sanjay to Howard Roark, the tormented, romantic hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Claiming his intentions “were totally pure, crystal clear as Mahatma Gandhi’s”, she remained his indefatigable champion in good times and bad.

After Mrs Gandhi, Sanjay and the Congress party’s humiliating defeat in the historic election of 1977, Maneka set up Surya magazine that vilified and undermined the Janata Party’s squabbling khich-hdi sarkar with gusto. Her best-remembered scoop was a series of photos showing Suresh Ram-son of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a leading light of the Janata Party-romping naked with a college girl. That put paid to the old Dalit leader’s dream of becoming prime minister.

Like his mother before him, Sanjay would have split the Congress party, dumping the harrumphing old guard to form the Congress (S)-he Sanjay-Maneka combine to be known as Congress (S-M). Whether or not she held elected office, Maneka would have been an imperious presence at Sanjay’s side-a litigious Jill of Trades to his Master of All Jack-saving animals, denigrating dairy products, propagating vegetarianism and buying up boatloads of art.

If Sanjay had lived, Varun Gandhi would have been Congress (S-M)’s indisputable crown prince and poet laureate with a penchant for producing volumes of excruciating verse with titles like Stillness (Example: “I lie in a patchwork of the impossible present and the invisible future”) and a living room hung with a king’s ransom in contemporary Indian art. Taking a journalist from Business Standard around his living room recently, he boasted, “You must visit my farm, I have about 2,000 paintings, I rotate them on my walls.”

Stillness was never a quality associated with Sanjay Gandhi; he had little use for banal poetry or smart art. His mother’s confidante Pupul Jayakar described him as “a wild wayward youth… rebellious, destructive… altogether unmanageable”; his great aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit thought he was “rude and crude”. Khushwant Singh adored him as “a loveable goonda” and heaped reams of praise extolling the “heavy load on his young shoulders”. Five days after Sanjay’s death, Singh wrote: “The only possible inheritor of the Sanjay cult figure is Maneka. She is like her late husband, utterly fearless when aroused, the very reincarnation of Durga astride a tiger.” (His torrents of praise turned to tears; how fearsome Maneka could be, he discovered, when she legally restrained the publication of his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice; it took Singh a long and costly battle to have the injunction lifted.)

I only met Sanjay Gandhi twice. He was small built, balding with long sideburns, and dressed in regulation khadi and kohlapuris. Given that journalists ranked just below Communists on his hate list, both encounters were unpleasant. The first was shortly before he lost the Amethi election in March 1977 in the Gauriganj rest house. Looking up from files on his desk, he barked at my photographer colleague Mandira Purie, “Out, out…you there, get out!” When she asked why, he said, “I can’t concentrate”. Surely a camera click was no disturbance, she asked. “No, it irritates me.” End of exchange. The opaque Q&A in India Today that appeared was a study in obfuscation, Sanjay Gandhi style (see excerpt).

On the second occasion, when he was in the political wilderness, Rukhsana Sultana, a cheerleader who had led his notorious nasbandi campaign in Old Delhi (and whom I knew as Meenu, because her brother was in college with me) said he was ready to give an interview. The Gandhis were in the doldrums-they had moved from 1 Safdarjung Road to 12 Willingdon Crescent-and I presumed she had his permission. I lurked in the veranda as giddy Meenu-swathed in chiffon, tossing back glossy tresses-swept inside. After a while they both emerged smiling. His lightning change of mood is imprinted in my memory to this day-thunderous face, attacking voice: “No,” he snarled in that Gauriganj tone, “no interviews…please leave,” and stomped off, banging the door shut and leaving poor Meenu, flustered and shaken.

At the heart of Sanjay’s leap to power was a complex, unfathomable mother-son dynamic. He exacerbated her fear that any loss of political power would endanger her family’s life and her own. She came to rely on him as her only trustworthy pillar of strength. “She was aware of how entangled her life had been with her younger son,” wrote her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar. “‘No one can take Sanjay’s place. He was my son, but was like an elder brother in his support,'” she told Jayakar after his death.

It was his recklessness with machines-cars and planes-that earned him notoriety and eventually killed him. As journalist Coomi Kapoor points out in her carefully researched recent book The Emergency: A Personal History, “the story of Maruti is inextricably linked to the Emergency…and [Sanjay’s] political friendships and enmities were based largely on attitudes towards his small-car project.”

Essentially, Maruti Ltd. turned out to be a huge land grab and financial scam-290 acres at throwaway prices in Gurgaon, a sycophantic loan mela by nationalised banks, extortion and blackmail to squeeze funds from business groups and traders. Bankers, cabinet ministers and captains of industry who opposed or resisted Sanjay’s muscle-flexing were threatened or sent packing; Mrs Gandhi remained impervious to the outcry in Parliament or the raging disquiet in the PMO. Her most senior and trusted advisers, for instance, principal secretary and diplomat P.N. Haksar, or P.N. Dhar, the distinguished economist, were shunted aside. There was no roadworthy car, of course, only faltering Maruti front-companies to be milked for cash.

A vacuum at the vortex of power sucked in a motley crew of courtiers. By early 1975, an expansion of the palace guard came to be known as “Sanjay’s coterie”. Early recruits were Haryana’s tyrannical chief minister Bansi Lal, Mrs Gandhi’s Rasputin-like yoga instructor Dhirendra Brahmachari and a mechanic, Arjan Das, who did the rounds of second-hand car repair shops with Sanjay. Helping to tighten his control of Delhi were yes-men like R.K. Dhawan, the prime minister’s chief factotum, IAS officer Navin Chawla and Om Mehta, later Union home minister. They busily propelled Sanjay into the driver’s seat.

Several reasons are ascribed for the imposition of the Emergency-certainly the Allahabad high court’s judgment on June 12, barring Mrs Gandhi from holding elected office, was the last straw-but all the previous year anti-corruption students’ agitations in Gujarat and Bihar had swelled into a major movement under Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) banner of revolt. Battling on several fronts, Mrs Gandhi became convinced that there were nefarious plots to unseat her and destabilise the country in conjunction with some unknown foreign hand. Within 24 hours of JP’s rally at Ramlila Ground on June 25 asking her to step down and West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s constitutional advice, Opposition leaders and Congress dissidents were rounded up, electricity to newspapers cut off, civil rights suspended and a punitive ordinance passed for arbitrary arrests.

Sanjay was at centre of it, yelling at the mild-mannered I.K. Gujral, then I & B minister-“You don’t seem to know how to control your ministry. Can’t you tell them how to put out the news?”-and instantly replaced him with V.C. Shukla. As his mother conferred with officials, he would interrupt-“Mummy, come for a moment,”-and she would leave the room, apparently to comply with instructions. At its height over the 21-month period, 150,000 people filled the jails, a number greater than during the Quit India movement in 1942. If Indira was the Emergency’s presiding deity, Sanjay was its high priest.

Six months later, he had taken over the Youth Congress, galvanising his storm troopers on whistle stop nationwide tours. Although hailed as Mrs Gandhi’s ordained successor-“You have stolen our thunder”, she declared at a Congress party session near Chandigarh-Sanjay held no official position. Convinced that his future was unquestioned and indefinite, it was the practice of two dark arts-mass sterilisations and slum clearance drives-that were his undoing. Between 1975-76 and 1976-77 the number of sterilisations-many forced on the unmarried persons and one-child couples-rose from 26.24 lakh to 81.23 lakh. Targets were fixed for districts; junior officials and schoolteachers deprived of salaries or suspended if they were unmet. Slum demolitions and involuntary displacement of thousands were the second great brutalities of the reign of terror. The worst incident was at Turkman Gate in Old Delhi when mobs revolted against bulldozers and the police, and riots broke out.

Jagmohan, later Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and Governor Jammu and Kashmir, ordered the demolitions. Like Sanjay, he never regretted his actions. But many others who received a headstart as members of Sanjay’s coterie outlasted him in long public careers-Pranab Mukherjee, Kamal Nath, Ambika Soni, Navin Chawla, R.K. Dhawan and Ghulam Nabi Azad to mention a few. Delhi today is adorned with rich material architecture of the Sanjay era: luxury hotels like the Taj Mansingh, Le Meridien and The Lalit owe their existence to his flouting of municipal laws for the coterie.

In the 40th anniversary year of the Emergency the question is sometimes asked, “Could it happen again?” If the unequivocal answer is “No”, its supplementary would be, “But what if Sanjay had lived? The Emergency’s excesses are possibly unrepeatable but Sanjay’s abrasive authoritarianism, disdain for public opinion and quick-fix solutions are perhaps back in fashion. Their echo may be the beau ideal of current dispensations. Nearly every political party is stuffed with wannabe Sanjay Gandhis.

Then, again, what would have happened to the other Gandhis?

The easy-going Rajiv would have carried on being an airline pilot, Sonia a loving housewife and part-time art restorer, both cocooned in their circle of doting Doon School and Cambridge friends. The happiest escapee might have been Rahul Gandhi: moving to a favoured city like London (No mosquito-riddled nights in Dalit huts! No tearing up of ordinances!), he would have spent his free hours gymming or going to nice Chinese restaurants. Priyanka Gandhi, unfettered by the windfall of Robert Vadra’s real estate millions, would have gladly hopped out of her goldfish bowl in Lutyens’ Delhi to lend a helping hand in her husband’s Moradabad brassware exports. Rajiv and his family would have been airbrushed out of history.


April 1, 1977

Not a nice man to know

India Today: What made you stand for election?

Sanjay: No special reason.

IT: What do you offer your constituents?

Sanjay: What I have offered before.

IT: What do you think the Opposition has to offer?

Sanjay: (still signing papers): Nothing.

IT: What cause does your opponent advocate?

Sanjay: Dacoity, mostly.

IT: Would you change the Youth Congress?

Sanjay: We’ll see after Ambika Soni retires.

Maneka: Why don’t you explain.

Sanjay: He’ll go and write that.

Sanjay (to Maneka): He’s a journalist, he ought to know.

IT: Would you have time for Maruti if you are an MP?

Sanjay: It depends.

IT: On what?

Sanjay: On various things.

by Sunil Sethi

Sunil Sethi is a senior journalist and columnist

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