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Francois Visser Thrifting Dazed
Mohammed has owned a shop, Faso City, in Maboneng for several years – “The city is always changing. Weekends and mornings are good for business, but Sundays I go to church”Photography by Francois Visser

Thrifting in Joburg

Capturing the heart of ‘street style’ in its purist form – explore the South African streets, where thrifting is a necessity not a trend

Forget Beyond Retro and Brick Lane, this is thrifting in its purist form. An essential need in a community whose residents often find themselves struggling to put food on the table, let alone clothes on their backs. Born out of necessity as opposed to the need for a trend, “The owners act as custodians, remaining true to their communities and supporting the daily hustle,” explains photographer Francois Visser who, through the bustling streets of Johannesburg, alongside stylist (and longtime Joburg thrifter) Bee Diamondhead who served as art director for the images, captured the shops and their keepers in a colourful and insightful portrait into the inner city heart of the country’s capital.

“The shops have been an indispensable factor and influence in shaping South African thrift shop street style, particularly in Johannesburg,” says Visser. Alongside providing the owners with their ‘livelihood’, “The keepers are witnessing the shifting ebb and flow of a younger generation for whom in recent years ‘thrifting’ has become a conduit for creative expression, looking to define their personal style through vintage and unbranded one-off items,” says Visser. While this shift in the thrift is something already reflected in other cities around the world whose stores have become so-called hipster havens, with prices soaring high beyond the means of the families who they were originally built for, the demand also leaves the city’s trade in something of a limbo. A worrying state for those who, as one shopkeeper puts it, sees them as “the only alternative for people who can’t afford to walk into a department store and buy something new”.

How did this project come about – the idea of documenting these stores and their owners?

Francois Visser: Bee had been thrifting in the city since she was a kid but had been absent from Joburg for a while. We both wanted to portray how South Africa’s visceral street style stems from a combination of necessity and strong community ties.

How do your experiences thrifting in South Africa differ from cities such as London or New York?

Bee Diamondhead: There are dozens of secondhand shops scattered all over downtown Jozi. The majority of people who buy clothes from the shops do so out of necessity. Most people and the owners wouldn’t necessarily even know what thrifting is. It’s a younger generation that frequents the stores in search of bespoke items - you gotta know where to go. The thrift shops in the inner city exudes an almost irreverent tenacity, unlike shops in other parts of Joburg, Cape Town, or bigger cities - items are also much cheaper than most places.

How did the owners react to you taking photos of them?

Bee Diamondhead: I’ve known a few of the guys since I was 19, I’m 29 now. So there were warm hugs, yet some shopkeepers were apprehensive - a definite wariness exists that coincides with the reality of day-to-day hardship. For the most part people are friendly and eager to engage in conversation. We went to all of the shops first to ask permission as a gesture of respect.

What do their shops mean to them? Did anyone tell you why they became shopkeepers?

Bee Diamondhead: It is their livelihood. A quintessential lifeblood.

Francois Visser: There is an eclectic mix of people from different walks of life that owns stores. Some were inherited, while others involuntarily became shop owners through the need to put clothes on the backs of their families. There is also a lot of immigrants from Nigeria, Congo, and Zimbabwe who came to Joburg, “the city of gold”, to seek a better life.

What do you hope people see or learn when looking at these photos?

Francois Visser: It is hopefully a viewpoint from the other side of the proscenium.