fashion: an interview with cherize ross, the designer behind south african clothing label k-word

December 12, 2014

Lately, the City of Cape Town has seen a wave of discourse around race, belonging, legacy and they way we see ourselves and each other 20 years after democracy. While Ferguson burns and so does the need to find solace from the harsh times we face, we as South Africa have our own issues to deal with, and somehow managed to find our own ways of expressing how our daily experiences make us. Designer Cherize Ross finds her comfort in K-Word, her recently released clothing label that creates a sassy, durable and stylish new skin for women of colour to feel at home in, even if they often can’t in today’s world. The name of the line, K-Word, (as in “kaff*r”) is the South African derivative of “n*gger”, which still stings the majority of people living in the city more often than it should. We touched base with Cherize a month after the opening show to see what the process has been like for her until now.

By Shiba Melissa Mazaza, AFROPUNK Contributor

What is it like for you being a person of colour in Cape Town, and how, besides the obvious, does that translate to your label?

I experience Cape Town as quite a racially divided city. While there is a small group of us who share similar ideas and thoughts, despite the colour of our skin, racism definitely still exists in the city. I describe it as that covert, subtle but niggly pain that you can’t quite put your finger on and that’s sometimes difficult to articulate.It’s just a “feeling” I get that something isn’t right. In the CBD I’m acutely aware of my race. Often I’ll be at certain restaurants or cafes and most of the time I’m the only black face other than the service staff. There’s a sense that there isn’t a space in the CBD for people of colour, non-whites. A lot of it is also infrastructural. Traveling between say Athlone / Khayalitsha / Mitchell’s Plain into the CBD is extreme sports and quite costly. I am so aware of the breadline, the other side of the mountain / railway tracks. I feel that white people in the CBD are oblivious to how the majority of (black) people in Cape Town live and that makes me sad. People would rather fuss over the rhino, and don’t get me wrong that is an issue of sorts, but there are people, actual human beings, mostly black, dying everyday in townships due to various reasons. While I really love the aesthetic beauty of Cape Town, I get the sense that there’s a real disregard for other human beings…

K-WORD is a brand that uses streetwear to promote social awareness by providing a platform to actually have the conversation about the discriminatory experiences happening on the streets. For me it was, and to an extent still is, racism; just yesterday a truck driver mouthed the words “Jou ma se poes jou kaffir” through his window. 20 years after democracy and these things are still happening and only once we realise that racism still exists can we have the conversation around solutions. K-WORD is about subverting the designer’s experience with racism and channeling it into clothing that shares the story that we are more than these experiences, that instead of fear of the other we should have love for one another. It’s about providing a platform, through streetwear, to address the discriminatory mentalities that exist in the minds of people from all types of race groups and backgrounds. K-WORD also acts as a representation of other experiences of discrimination, be it gender / sexual preference / class etc. The woman wearing K-WORD feels empowered, like she has a voice and is part of a bigger movement that seeks real solutions.

How long as K-Word been something that you’d planned to do, and how do you feel now that you’ve done it?

The need to use creativity to respond to my racist experiences has been an idea in my head for 2 years now. K-WORD as a concept existed for a year and as a reality for only 4 months. Well, the launch was just the beginning. While K-WORD promotes social change, it’s also a business and growing a brand and a business is a life-long commitment, so on that front I’m very focused. On the other hand I am extremely humbled and inspired that other people can relate to the brand and are inspired to be better human beings. I only found out later that at the launch people had conversations about their own personal experiences where they felt sub-par / less-than-human. I feel very excited to continue using K-WORD as a vehicle of change.

What can we expect from the range, and what sets the colours and textures apart from anything else “made in Africa?”

The range is made up of a variety of garments, from jumpsuits to croptops to dresses to tracksuit tops and lightweight cropped jackets. The look and feel also varies from high-street streetwear to futuristic streetwear to pure street. The monochrome look and feel symbolises the obvious while the hints of gold allude to the fact that as Africans we were once kings and queens that gave us a sense of dignity. It’s a little reminder that we’re still royalty with dignity and that should come through in the way we treat ourselves and others. The camouflage is a play on how we try to hide who we are by feigning accents or dressing a certain way etc to fit in, but that hiding ourselves to fit into some notion of society / the status quo only brings more discrimination through self-judgement. We should embrace who were are and be proud of it. Lastly I played quite a bit with transparency, being able to see through the bullshit, the smokescreens. As you can see K-WORD has various layers. When choosing fabrics I went with 1) what feels nice against my skin 2) the wear and tear on the fabric and 3) the aesthetic of each fabric.

There are still so many people who believe that people of colour should “just get over it” because Apartheid has long ended. How do you explain something like that to someone who doesn’t live it the way you do?

Apartheid was a mental and economic oppression. For decades infrastructure like access to water, food, education, healthcare etc was used to make black people feel inadequate and less than human. Changing street names and removing the infrastructural barriers, to a certain degree, isn’t what makes a nation free. The mental and emotional scars are still there. As long as I still have incidents like the one yesterday, the apartheid mentality still exists. That’s what we should be looking to change. The very fact that so many people think that people of colour should “just get over it” is the very mentality that we have to change. While they may not have experienced it, the deep-rooted inferiority complexes it created still exists. As long as people of colour feel as though they don’t belong in the CBD, apartheid still exists. As long as people of colour are called “good blacks” or “different to ‘normal’ blacks” apartheid exists. As long as I’m still one of a few black faces, other than service staff, in star-rated restaurants, apartheid exists. As long as people of colour are mistaken for cleaners in their place of work, apartheid exists. These are the separations that still exist 20 years after our so-called democracy.

What are your plans for the line? Will there be a winter range as well?

At the moment the aim is to create an a-seasonal or non-seasonal range. The current line comprises of 10 garments. The plan is to ensure that we continue to create fashion-forward clothing that conveys a message and a story, allowing the wearer to feel empowered and part of a bigger change movement. At this early stage we’re establishing ourselves in the market and we’d like for the fashion-savvy to recognise our presence. Of course, as with any dreamer, we would love to see the brand go global and that means continuing to push the envelope. We see the brand as the start of a conversation that promotes positive change and subverts the notion that the kaffir is one of darkness, the swart gevaar, the thing to be feared. Instead we challenge this to say hey! K-WORD is about light and love, let’s have the conversation that takes you from your state of darkness into our world of light.

* Shiba Melissa Mazaza: