The first time I met Phendu Kuta was during a brief and rather coincidental conversation with photographer, Themba Mbuyisa at Unlabelled magazine’s Night Market held at The Cosmopolitan in the Maboneng Precinct. Themba was explaining some of his photographs on display in a wooden-floored, white-walled, bedroom-cum-exhibition space. He had broken off a conversation with a petite woman, presumably a friend, with thick twisted braids, big eyes, dressed in a crisp white shirt. It was only after I had explained that I was a writer that Themba’s friend casually asked me if I was a Live mag writer. Themba’s friend was in fact Phendu Kuta, the brainchild and editor of Unlabelled Magazine, an online fashion magazine on the cutting edge of trends of the Johannesburg urban youth culture scene.
At the helm of this magazine is Phendu Kuta. She’s founder, editor, creative director and stylist of Unlabelled. We recently met to discuss her career in the fashion industry, the inspiration behind the magazine, and the creation of the night market.
“I am someone who is not afraid to follow their dreams. I’ve always felt like I was someone who would like to work independently and do their own thing. So I quit my job last year.”
It was only last year that Phendu Kuta decided to resign from her position as a Visual Merchandiser for a retail store to follow her dream of starting her own business. The idea she had of starting her own magazine after graduating from Lisof in 2012 was then born as Unlabelled magazine. With the support from her mother and friend/photographer, Nikki Zakkas, the self-funded project came to life.
“Unlabelled was inspired by my childhood among other things. I moved around Joburg a lot so I was inspired by the people, the culture and the diversity. We don’t have a lot that represents who we are.”
The magazine has done some impressive work in its first year, producing striking visual content that, in my opinion, reflects the microcosm of urban youth culture in a way that is much more authentic in its representation of South African aesthetics and trends. It’s as much about fashion as it is about identity. What we see in Unlabelled is content that goes beyond the outdated ideas of Afrocentric fashion and African identities. These tired representations strike up images with the dark-skinned African women, in gold jewellery and African printed dresses spewing pan-African rhetoric or mere replications of Western trends. Instead, in Unlabelled magazine we see representations of fashion as diverse and creative in the inspiration it draws from, the influence it has on local trends and how local trends are created, absorbed and consumed. It’s given the industry’s influencers, photographers and designers a platform to collaborate and showcase their work, featuring quirky and cool characters such as Okmalumkoolkat, DJ Doowap, Tzvi Karp (the Sikh Punk extraordinaire), Mongezi Mcelu, Moonchild and Makhosonke Castro.
“It focuses on showcasing authentic Joburg fashion and style in a cutting edge, raw and pioneering way by drawing inspiration from local cultures and subcultures. We strive to connect to an extensive multicultural audience through original editorials and thought provoking articles.”
In my opinion, Unlabelled, has been able to strike the uncanny balance of forecasting trends and holding up a mirror to the cultural scene – and that is what sets it apart from many publications. At its core, the magazine plays the roles of forecaster and man on the ground, as is evident in their second issue, which featured the denim trend that is currently a mainstream trend.
“The [Unlabelled magazine] night market was about creating something that represents the mag with the photography exhibition and the designers because the whole idea of the magazine is to bring together designers and photographers.”
The night market was held at the The Cosmopolitan, a heritage site over 100 years old in Jeppestown, a building that I’ve been dying to get into. If the charisma of the location wasn’t enough of a pull, gaining access to some hard-to-find fashion and photography did the trick. According to Kuta, the market was a success for young designers and photographers, providing them with exposure, sales and a platform to reach clientele.
“We wanna try to innovate and create new concepts with every event.”
Much like the magazine, the vision for the night market is to create new concepts. And despite Kuta’s relative inexperience within the publishing and events world, Unlabelled has produced some notable content and a night market, both which are likely to grow from strength to strength. If there’s one thing we can learn from the work Kuta is doing, it’s that formal inexperience and big ideas should not be perceived as a hurdle in pursuing your vision. All you really have to do is start and learn from mistakes.
Words by @ThatGirlFati