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Sistaaz of the Castle by Duran Lantink and Jan Hoek
FlavirinaCourtesy of Duran Lantink and Jan Hoek

See a group of transgender sex workers star in their fantasy fashion shoots

Designer Duran Lantink and photographer Jan Hoek present Sistaaz of the Castle, a project created in collaboration with a South African collective

In 2014, Dazed 100 designer Duran Lantink and photographer Jan Hoek travelled to Cape Town. The two friends and collaborators went in search of two women they’d seen in a photo online, a pair of transgender sex workers with a unique, chaotic, and brilliant sense of style.

“When we came to Cape Town we found out that there was a self-organised transgender sex workers support group named SistaazHood, a community of more than 30 women who meet once a week,” Lantink says. The group provides community support as well as medical care, and was where they found the women from the photograph. Over the following years, the two formed a connection with the members, returning to create a body of work called Sistaaz of the Castle.

Currently fundraising, Sistaaz takes the form of a faux fashion glossy magazine and sees seven of the women step into character to explore their wildest fantasties through images. One called Coco, for example, wanted to be shot as the flame in the Statue of Liberty, and pictured emerging from a giant egg, while another, Flavirina, is shot as a world-famous supermodel in images credited to imaginary magazine shoots – as well as in a ‘campaign for Nokia as spread all over East-Africa’. The spirit of fun (and playing fast and loose with designer branding) Lantink is known for is present – a bag has ‘Celine’ written on it in marker pen, while another of the women, Cleopatra, is shot in ‘the very special Cleopatra Air Max Sandal’ – a hybrid shoe created by sticking a sandal onto a trainer.

The stylised images feature alongside more traditional documentary photos, as well as first-person essays telling the stories of each subject. The book also includes a piece about the status of LGBTQ+ people and sex workers in South Africa, and a forward from the women, who discuss their collective decision to take part. “We want people to see that we are amazing, we are talented, we are smart, we are funny and we are gorgeous and badass,” they say, adding that the project itself was therapeutic, bringing them together as a group as well as benefitting them financially.

The resulting images are at times both funny and moving, personal and parodic – Lantink tells us more. 

The group has a lot of members – how did the women decide who would take part in the project?

Duran Lantink: We organised a workshop where I bought lots of clothing in a charity shop so everyone could then customise their own outfits. We asked the group to vote for the best outfits and the best dream photoshoot proposal, and from those votes we got the privilege to work with seven of the women who acted as ambassadors for the SistaazHood community.

Could you talk a bit more about each of the women and their photoshoots?

Duran Lantink: We worked together with Joan Collins, Coco Chanel, Gabby, Céline Dion, Sulega, Cleopatra and Flavi. Joan is 60, the oldest of the group, and her dream was a big wedding dress because she was afraid that she would never have one at her age. Coco is the wild fairytale girl running around town hustling things for her girls and blowing bubbles. Céline Dion is a true performer – she loves to sing Céline Dion songs and that is what she does alongside sex work. Gabby always dreamed of having her own luxury brothel, and Legie is the godmother you don't want to mess with. Cleo is the pretty girl – the diva who loves to party, and Flavi is a refugee from Burundi who wants to be a supermodel.

What inspired you about the stories they chose to tell in the images?

Duran Lantink: A lot of activism is hidden in the fictional stories we visualised in outfits and photos: Gabby has dreams of running her own Victorian-style brothel where sex workers have a safe place to work, surrounded by gold. Cleopatra dreams to become a female trans ruler of an African country. I think both really show that sex workers are not poor victims, but creative entrepreneurs who dream of a bigger career in that work.

“We want people to see that we are amazing, we are talented, we are smart, we are funny and we are gorgeous and badass” – Sistaazhood 

How did you ensure the project was not exploitative, and that it benefitted them as much as it did you?

Duran Lantink: The whole project was only possible because SistaazHood chose to work with us; they created the outlines in which Jan and I worked, and are very picky about who they collaborate with. There is shared ownership in the whole project, they can use all the pictures as well and if we sell any pictures, the money goes back to SistaazHood. If the publication arrives in Cape Town, they will get all the benefits from sales. And in the magazine you will also find the email addresses of some of the women, so that people who want to support them or work together or do business can approach them.

What do you want people to take away from the project?

Duran Lantink: A lot of things, it's not one dimensional. It shows that you don't need money to be creative or be a fashion icon. It shows that there are much more interesting communities who work with fashion than are currently represented in the world of fashion. It shows that sex workers are proud activists who really can like their jobs. It shows that there are African countries with very active queer scenes. It shows that a fashion project can have a documentary side and elements of activism. And we hope that the people who read the magazine also fall in love with these girls the same way as we did.

To donate, pre-order a copy, or buy a print, click here.