Earle Sebastian, Swankers, & Sartorial Pursuits at Picture Farm
Earle Sebastian is a man to be admired. Firstly, because the South African-born, London-raised film director/creative director/event curator has gathered certain professional accolades. Secondly, and more importantly for the purposes of this article, because he has style. Definitions of style abound on the internet (i.e., Oscar de la Renta: “Style is more about being yourself.”), but there’s no one way to get it. The only thing that’s certain is you can’t buy it prepackaged.
Sebastian’s instinct for style was passed down from his grandfather, Fred, a South African Zulu who worked on a cargo ship as a laborer, but saved to invest in hats from England and shoes from Europe because he valued elegance and grace. Many decades later, Sebastian carries on those values, as well as an intricate knowledge of fashion (gained while working with a tailor in the industry) and artistic chops. Thus, it feels fitting that he recently curated “RAW” at Picture Farm in Williamsburg, an exhibition of documentary-fashion images with guest artists Hassan Hajjaj & Chris Saunders, which also showcased Sebastian’s own work with Swankers in South Africa.
Swankers (also spelled as “Swenkas”) are working-class, migrant South African men who have created a new community among themselves by channeling their self-respect, pride, and creativity, along with their deep understanding and appreciation of fine men’s clothing, into organized fashion shows. The performances take place in the hostels where the men stay temporarily while earning a living in the cities. “I was absolutely blown away when I saw this,” said Sebastian. “These men would come out to no music on these concrete floors. The audience was completely silent, and they would do this very elegant dance, whereby they would lift the leg of a pant leg to show you a sock or to show you a shoe and the fact that the shoe had been polished.” The men are judged (and the prizes are awarded) not only on their appearance, but also on how well the men perform.
The photographs in the “Swenkas/Swankers” series, however, are about a decade old, which is how many years ago Sebastian first heard about the dapper men in the raw settings and hopped a plane to Johannesburg to investigate with his camera. He had planned on using the images back in the States to raise funding for a documentary, but he “was just a little too early, and people didn’t get it,” said Sebastian. “I think sometimes in being too early, you’re too late.” Now, all these years later, South African Swankers are on the map for what they do, to the extent that they’ve even been used to market Nokia cell phones. Nigerian Swankers, who are called “Sapeurs,” were part of a Guinness beer advertisement earlier this year.
Thus, during RAW’s opening night, the photographs finally see their first public hurrah as black and white prints framed by multicolored thread pipping. The Picture Farm gallery space quickly fills with a sea of around seventy-five people (including an islet of teenagers), and a DJ lays down beats from boxes of meticulously arranged records. I ask a guy next to me what he thinks about it all: Do you like it? I press. “Yeah,” he says, and then pauses. “For a variety of reasons. It gives me insight into something I don’t see in the typical news feeds. I can relate to the Swankers. They have a certain self-pride expressing themselves and doing what they do.”
A few days after the show, Greenpointers caught up with Sebastian via telephone as he paused in between a move to a new apartment…
GPers: When did you move to England from Durban?
ES: I moved to England when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My mother is Zulu, and my father is from India. They met in South Africa, and they fell in love. But mixed marriages were illegal back then, so they boarded a cargo ship and came to England. And I spent my formative years in England.
GPers: Did you ever know your grandfather, Fred?
ES: I never knew Fred. I just knew of Fred. Many family members would speak in high regards of Fred. Fred taught himself how to read through the newspapers that were left on cargo ships by the sailors who traveled to various countries.
Fred would read advertisements about a hat, say, in London. He would save up his money, take his measurement, and he would tell an individual: “I believe you’re heading to England tomorrow afternoon.” It was someone he’d get to know after awhile. The sailor would head up and, two months later, would arrive in Durban with a hatbox. And even though Fred was a laborer, he was always very dapper. He could talk to you about a tie knot, depending on the shape of the collar of a shirt. He could talk to you about which buttons you do up on a blazer. You never do them all the way up. These were the kinds of things that he passed on or that I heard through my mother and father
GPers: Your grandfather had three rules: never be the first at a dance, always make sure you have a clean white handkerchief in your back pocket, and always make sure you have the best shoes on. What are the rules that you would tell your son now?
ES: I may change the language a little bit, but the sense would be the same. I think all those points are extremely interesting for a number of reasons. It speaks to style and taste. Would I change them for my son? No. If a lady has an accident or whatever, you always have a white handkerchief.
GPers: What are you wearing today?
ES: Because I haven’t left the house yet today and I’m in the middle of moving, I’m wearing a pair of Levis, a white t-shirt, and a pair of Birkenstocks. A pair of Levis is like Coca-Cola. That is America.
GPers: What is the first thing you notice about a person when you are meeting someone new?
ES: I’m always looking at what shoes they’re wearing. For me, you can always tell the personality through some way at a glance at their shoes. The next step is if they can hold your gaze or their eye line.
GPers: What is your favorite article of clothing that you own?
ES: I just bought a hat a recently. They say you can find anything in New York, but I’d been searching for a hat in New York to no avail. I’d been uptown, in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Hasidic area, and could not find a hat. I reached out to my contacts in London and I managed to find a hat there.
I’m not sure what you’d call it actually, but it comes from a great designer in London called Sharpeye. It’s a felt hat. What I love about it is the height of the hat. The hat has a height that you don’t find for some reason. You find it in Hasidic hats, but they only come it black. This one is a slate gray.
GPers: Who were you your influences growing up?
ES: A lot of my influences growing up worked in London, actually. But I think one of my biggest influences is Ralph Lauren. Ralph is just classic, classic, classic. It’s incredible the way he cuts. He gets it right every time.
GPers: How would you describe South Africa today to New Yorkers?
ES: Johannesburg is New York. Cape Town is Los Angeles. And Durban is Brooklyn. I think Cape Town is absolutely gorgeous aesthetically, and where it sits on the planet is fantastic. But it’s almost like landing in a field and deciding that this field is South Africa. You have to travel to Johannesburg. You have to go to Durhban. Cape Town is the safest version of South Africa there is.
GPers: What is elegance?
GPers: You’ve said before that you’d apply the term “Swanker” to Miles Davis. Is there anyone famous who you think is a modern day Swanker?
ES: In commercial terms, I’d say Pharrell. And Pharrell’s late. What Pharrell is wearing right now is really interesting and fabulous, but it’s a little late. It’s just that he’s taken it from the street to the masses.†