Melville has long been known to be one of the most popular thrift communities in the City of Johannesburg. A vintage store on the main drag is keeping the tradition alive while still providing a decent livelihood for its owners.
IT IS 10:24 on a bright, sunny Wednesday morning. In front of The Moral Kiosk vintage store on 7th Street, Melville, sits a middle-aged man, cross-legged on a light brown Windsor chair. His long dark-skinned legs are covered by a pair of black skinny jeans, with a silver stainless steel chain hanging from the right side. The look is complemented by a black t-shirt with “Iggy Pops” printed in red letters.
OLD FASHIONED: The Moral Kiosk vintage store owned by Josh Georgiou on Melville’s 7th Street.
CLASSICAL: Music vinyls and antique furniture for sale at The Moral Kiosk.
He occasionally stands up to greet a passer-by with a grin and an energetic demeanour, displaying intense familiarity with some locals. His punk-rock outfit is fashionably matched with a pair of black boots and accessorised with an unbuttoned black flat cap, fashion items which are not foreign to the style on the hangers inside.
His name is Fundiswa ‘Quiet’ Mngquli, a 54-year-old leather designer who makes and trades leather items ranging from jackets, belts, bags, shoes and vintage clothing from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Mngquli is one of two black entrepreneurs who dabble in the trade of vintage clothing within The Moral Kiosk and has been trading clothes for over 30 years, around Johannesburg.
Working at the same store, is a lean young man easily identified by his black grunge boots often accompanied by black baggy track pants and a fanny pack wrapped across his torso. Kevin Donashe is a 38-year-old vintage clothing entrepreneur who sells denim clothes and clothes which specifically show colours and characteristics from the 1970s to the early 1990s. He has been importing and selling clothes for over a decade.
In the soaring temperatures beating down the corner of 7th Street, these two self-employed African entrepreneurs overwhelm and captivate potential clients with acute nostalgia through the sale of vintage clothing items from days gone by. The harvest and trade of second-hand clothing from across borders of South Africa and neighbouring locations is at the heart of the work they do. They are two of the few black men to trade authentic second-hand clothing.
Their retro fashion dealings take place in Melville, a Johannesburg suburb whose approximately 3 355 inhabitants are predominately white. The rest are mostly Africans and a smaller number of coloured, and Asian residents.
This hub of retro fashion is one of the few suburbs characterised by restaurants, coffee shops and clothing stores quilted one next to the other down the street as opposed to the typical shopping complex.
The streets of this ‘bohemian village’, especially 7th Street, are never short of crowds of students from nearby universities and convoys of washed-out yellow and vibrant, red metered taxis. The grey road surface peppered with purple flowers falling from the jacaranda trees, are perpetually obstructed by stationary vehicles outside every establishment.
Vintage style goes beyond the threads of the garments within this store. The four walls of The Moral Kiosk, with a hollow centre occupied by three wooden coffee tables, house a plethora of vintage and antique items which make one almost feel as though one has travelled back in time.
Upon going through the glass door with a wooden frame, the vibe of times past is dominated by the serene sound of late 1980s and early 1990s jazz music, luring customers in.
PRISTINE: Fundiswa Mngquli shows off one of his expensive pieces, a British guard’s jacket.
The shabby looking corner store, painted with a desert sandy colour that is noticeably peeling off, is one of many heritage buildings on Melville’s 7th Street. Its gracefully-aged veranda makes no secret of the fact that the building has been standing for nearly 100 years, having been built in the 1920s. The black corrugated iron roofing, along with the three dark green decorative pillars are typical of the Victorian architecture popular at the time.
This store is owned by Josh Georgiou, a prominent music manager who has managed the late world-renowned South African trumpeter, composer, singer and flugelhornist, Hugh Masekela, for over 10 years. Georgiou has also worked with the likes of Blak Jaks, Bye Beneco, Urban Village and Desmond and the Tutus.
In selecting the store, Georgiou wanted to combine a number of elements which are his favourite and create an inviting space for people who fancy “coffee, music and fashion all at the same time,” he says. Most importantly, however, is the decision to allow entrepreneurs of different backgrounds to operate their businesses in a permanent place other than a market which does not guarantee a distinguished place of trade.
DID YOU KNOW?
British guards’ blazers are worn by the queen’s foot guards. These jackets were popular in from the 17th to the 20th centuries.
It is believed that their red colour was meant to camouflage blood stains during war. The fact, however, is that red dye used to colour these items was the cheapest during the 17th Century.
VIDEO: Exploring elite thrifting on 7th Street.
“Quiet [Mngquli] is an old friend I’ve known for over 30 years,” says Georgiou. When Mngquli left his previous store in Parkhurst to trade in local markets, Georgiou suggested that Mngquli’s “stuff should be in a permanent space where people can come back”.
At the front of the store is a cluster of hanging leather jackets of bright and dark colours. Next to them are trousers that emit old-fashioned vibes. Just behind the rails are two tall mannequins dressed in British guards’ blazers that are hard to miss because of their bright lipstick red colour.
These are special garments which Mngquli purchased at Camden Town in London approximately 12 years ago. Although the jackets were somewhat costly, going for 150 British pounds at the time, he did not seem to mind. Unique fashion items come first.
“These are serious pieces. I had to buy all four when I saw them, and the thing about them is that they are specific and unique. You don’t find them anywhere else in South Africa,” he exclaims with a smile and wide-open eyes while pointing at the garments in question. According to Mngquli, two of the four blazers were bought by a film company in Hyde Park. He insists that he will not sell the remaining two for anything less than R8 500.
Mngquli’s love of working with clothing began decades ago, in 1984. He fell in love with leather because of the punk-rock/ biker movement. This is an era during which punk-rock was the “in thing” and black South Africans who dared to be different, gliding away from the typical pantsula culture and style found a sub-culture whose fashion was nothing short of bravery, uniqueness and provocative statements.
The father of three came to Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape in the 1980s. He came with his cousin, Mike Nkosi, and together they sought jobs for survival. This was a period in which prospects for employment back home were bleak. In apartheid South Africa, the two black men defied the odds and proudly experimented and fell in love with the biker and punk-rock culture.
The ‘Godfathers of the punk-movement’, as they refer to themselves, learnt how to make leather jackets, belts, shoes and bags for themselves. Those around them loved their look and would urge them to make and sell to them as well. This led to the Mngquli, with the help of his cousin, making these items on a professional scale and availing them to clients.
The majority of Mngquli’s customers were local and foreign white people at markets, especially the Johannesburg Market Theatre. He made shoes called ‘winky-pickys’, chin-high boots with thick rubber soles. He sold them at the only market in the city back then and also travelled to markets in Cape Town and Durban with his cousin.
“People knew who we were and that made it difficult to sell in Apartheid South Africa but we didn’t care because we were fighting apartheid in a different way,” says Nkosi.
Due to popular demand, “…Fundi [Mngquli] and myself learnt how to sew clothing at a young age, not long after we arrived in Johannesburg in the 80s. We even travelled around Europe together to buy clothes and sold them here at home,” he adds.
After years of working and owning stores together, the cousins split in 2002 when Mngquli decided to open a store in Parkhurst called Second Attitude, which he left for markets, and later, The Moral Kiosk. Nkosi owns his own store in Hyde Park where he also sells clothes of a similar style.
TIMELINE: Retro fashion that has become popular today.
Donashe, who was also born in the Eastern Cape, at a small town called Qoboqobo (Keiskammahoek), started gaining interest in fashion from the age of 15 and has always loved “keeping up a good image” he says. The history of fashion, especially that of the 1970s and 1980s, is what sparked his interest in clothes, especially the uniqueness and statement those clothes make in today’s modern era.
The 38-year-old left his home town and was Johannesburg bound in 2009, six years after both his parents died. He left his younger sister behind with their aunt and came to explore his interest in fashion through the work of collecting, importing and reselling vintage clothing. Despite working as a restaurant waiter and an assistant at a Chinese printing store whose location he has a vague memory of, the father of three started buying and selling clothes at markets as well until he also found his way to The Moral Kiosk in 2018.
The image of thrifting has traditionally been that of an old woman who has been defeated by the urges of hoarding and reluctantly donates to nearby stores and charities.
Extreme cases even involve “collecting items ranging from old picture frames, screws, coffee-stained paper as majority old white people do in Uruguay” giggles Donashe’s colleague, Nicola Feinburg, while gently bopping her head side-to-side in response to the calming jazz music in the background. This may or may not be the case with the clothes that land in Donashe’s hands.
The retro clothing fan and part-time writer of religious and nail-biting apocalyptic fiction, gets his clothing supply from a man whom he refuses to identify. The ‘man’ sources a lot of the items from different parts of the world such as South America and Europe.
VINTAGE: Clothing rails outside The Moral Kiosk.
With a shamelessly persuasive tongue, Donashe does the extraordinary. He negotiates with random people in the street who are dressed in a clothing item that he sees fit to be traded in his business. Rest assured that in most cases he wins.
“I don’t usually buy stuff unless if it’s something really nice or I need it. I can approach you there and then and I give you money if I’m crazy about what you are wearing,” he says as his face lights up. Talking about the complexities of picking out items to thrift, Donashe emphasises that, “It’s a skill. It’s not like going to a second-hand store. The rule is to stay away from stuff that you can’t tell is from the 70s, 80s or 90s.”
A pair of Swedish tourists, Mathias Lindstron and Olov Sandberg, are fascinated by the music inside and stop for coffee. “We heard the music from across the street and had to stop by. We spoke to… [Mngquli]… and he’s so fascinating,” says Sandberg.
SECOND HAND: Kevin Donashe inspects one of his newly acquired clothing items to be sold.
Clothing items which were made in the 1920s are regarded as ‘antique’ clothing.
Those that are a decade or so old are considered ‘vintage’ clothing.
Lindstron, who is also a thrifting enthusiast, says, “The clothes are just so interesting and I don’t mind second-hand clothes, apart from underwear,” he giggles, sipping on his coffee which drips onto his half-buttoned khaki shirt with vintage print.
Despite possible hygienic risks, reusing clothes is imperative for a consumer culture that knows no bounds in terms of fashion and its different eras.
“There is enough clothing. The world doesn’t need to recreate,” he adds.
Although thrifting became noticeable only in recent years, Heidi Svendsen, a trend lecturer in visual merchandise at LISOF fashion design school, says that it is nothing new. “Thrifting and selling vintage clothes was done over the years, including the 80s.”
Like many other professions, daunting possibilities remain a threat to the respective operations of Donashe and Mngquli. The former is perpetually terrified by the possibility of having the identity of his source known. He fears that competitors could source from him and sell at a lower price.
Mngquli complains that from the early 2000s, foreign traders started selling a lot of fake leather jackets and won over a lot of clients who do not know the difference between genuine leather and plastic. He lost some of his regular clients to this predicament as well.
He laments that two metres of leather material in Market Street used to cost R600, and he needs five meters to make a complete leather jacket. “It is frustrating to have to spend so much money and time on making a leather jacket only for customers to go and buy the fake ones from Somalians. That’s why I’d rather import my leather jackets [and not] make them,” he says shrugging his shoulders.
Most of Mgquli’s leatherwear makes him a lot more money during the winter season. “I make about R60 000 to R70 000 a month during the winter because a plain leather belt costs R450, while a studded one costs R800.” The leather cowboy boots cost R2 500 a pair, (from what he says would normally cost R8 000 elsewhere). Leather bags range from R850 to R1 400, and R 600 for a leather hat.
A lot of these do not sell when atmospheric temperatures ascend above average, licking the foreheads and limbs of potential victims of heat stroke. Most South African women do not fancy leather pants and skirts as much as Europeans do. It is during this season that he ends up making about R15 000 monthly, arguably still a decent amount in the trade of ‘decades-old’ clothing.