Dressed in Amanda Laird Cherry: Exploring society through the eyes of style

Amanda Laid Cherry

By Mamelodi Marakalala

A quote that makes us think about how society engages with fashion came from Amanda Laird Cherry, who said, “Those who think of clothing exclusively in terms of this or next season’s fashion are missing the point a little. The fabrics and the cuts we wear tell us about our society.” With over three decades in fashion, having obtained a Clothing Design degree from the then Technikon Natal (now Durban University Technology) in 1983,  it’s interesting to look at the Amanda Laird Cherry brand, which she officially established in 1996, and what it can tell us about South African society over the years. 

The Amanda Laird Cherry fashion house is only two years younger than South Africa’s democracy. In celebration of having freedom for 30 years, South Africans eagerly await election day on the 29th of May. We have also been looking back over the last three decades. 

Art carries so much weight when it comes to reflecting on society and celebrating different moments from history, and fashion has the capacity to do the same. For many, it is the window through which they express their individuality. On a larger scale, it plays a significant role in the cultural and sociopolitical governance of the human body; often highlighting societal expectations we have of different groups.  

Fashion is a map and compass that ushers people into their roles in society. For instance, women into their womanhood and men into their manhood. Fashion is a scale that tilts in terms of class. Like how some people have access to certain brands of clothing based on their socioeconomic standing. It associates people to a certain geographical point. This happens when someone can dress in Ndebele traditional attire and immediately be assumed to come from the Mpumalanga province, for one. Permeating through all aspects of human culture, fashion can very much be looked to as a source of these definitions and how they evolved over the past years. 

Kwenzekile Nxumalo’s Master’s dissertation, looking at dress and architecture in South Africa and submitted to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2008, made a note about the influences of traditional design and the pantsula lifestyle in Amanda Laird Cherry’s fashion practice. More than just a dance or the inspired performances of a dance genre, isiPantsula is a culture celebrated and lived by many men in South Africa that began in the townships of Johannesburg dating as far back as the establishment of apartheid. The typical pantsula gent can be seen wearing a spoti – commonly referred to as a bucket hat, a formal checkered shirt, Dickies or other brands of pleated pants, formal shoes or Converse All-Stars. He is clean and confident in his demeanour. 

The pantsula designs reflect the way of life and the communities that have often gone unseen and disregarded but are loud in how they carry themselves and contribute greatly to working and entrepreneurial structures in South Africa. Pantsula designs carry existing stories about the varied oppressions and challenges of the designated “common man” in his hustle, his “pressa-pusha-phanda” as the amaPanstula say, to make something of himself and provide for his family. 

In 2016, Amanda Laird Cherry Apparel celebrated twenty years in the fashion industry. This significant anniversary saw a short archival video giving us a glimpse into the factory where the magic happens. It is emphasised that “Amanda’s archives are more than simply pieces of clothing. They are conceptual and mediated; rooted in aspects of South African culture.” She is positioned as an artistic storyteller whose threading and clothing reveal accounts of the personal and political. 

As Amanda Laird Cherry herself goes around in the video; looking through the works hung and in progress, and speaking with the artisans and team, the different shots we see of items exemplify the feel of the 2000s and 2010s. While many of these items are currently going through a renewed popularity with the current generation, they carry a nostalgia of shared memories of older generations.  

In the Amanda Laird Cherry archival video, a shot of a red collarless long coat that signified sophistication for women around the 2010s can be some reminder of the turn when it was largely normalised for women to be part of industry and corporate ecosystems. Women started joining the workforce after the First World War, slowly moving from classically designated domestic and nurture-type roles to work requiring more distinct or hard skills between the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus, showing a grand shift from uniform styles with feminine-maternal particularities to suits and other such sharper forms.  

There are moments in the video where we see the shweshwe fabrics, which are an instant identifier of many South Africans’ cultural identities. Seshweshwe is used to make a wide range of traditional attires that follow a timeline in terms of style – going from largely making khiba dresses to being reimagined into modern and bespoke fashion wear. The shweshwe traditional wear is also historically associated with the domestication of the South African Black woman and paints a picture of her culturally prescribed role in family, the economy, and her life in society. 

The beaded pins of the HIV&AIDS ribbon, “ingozi” words underneath a skull, and one of a heart symbol, among a few others shown in the video, speak to South African society’s rising health crisis and fight against the epidemic that was at its height throughout the 2000s. This brought on memories of those years when South Africa was most plagued and moved by this disease. It also highlights how symbolism can be worn to build solidarity amongst people from all over the world.  

Amanda Laird Cherry has now showcased her seasonal designs at the South African Fashion Week 25 times, having appeared for the first time in 1999. In 2019, the annual fashion event reflected on twenty years of paving the way for South African designers and presenting their evolutionary works to wider audiences. When that year’s schedule was announced, Amanda Laird Cherry acknowledged how the platform has given “esteem” to designers and “legitimacy” to the fashion industry in the country. In turn, she was praised for her “keen South African sensibility”. 

Her commitment to the shweshwe textiles continued for the Spring/Summer 2019 showcase. Amanda Laird Cherry showcased varying tunics that resembled sculptured fabric covering and cascading around the bodies of the models, with very natural colours that further the mellow and earthy style of the brand. The Autumn/Winter 2019 show was a presentation of darker colours such as navy, brown, and black. The designs were more defined, with layers such as coats and maxi dresses. There were also mesh garments that formed more labyrinthine and artistic shapes. 

“The Amanda Laird Cherry woman is unique and down-to-earth, stylish and excited by the distinctive design vision of the brand. [She is] inspired by the story our garments and ranges have to tell,” the designer says in an interview with Bella Naija Style in 2019. In a Sunday Times interview with Nothemba Mkhondo, also in 2019, she continues, “I like to think that we’re designing for an aesthetically conscious customer and, in some ways, they’re a thinking person and not just a follower of fast-fashion trends.” 

Current menswear items (viewed in May 2024) such as the Land and Ebony overalls as well as the Field and Ntube trousers echo the classic appeals of rigid masculinity that typically follows the laborious and economic path while also acknowledging the evolution of the masculine role in contemporary times, in terms of men being encouraged to embrace their individuality and explore different modes of being. 

The women’s current collection (as viewed in May 2024) has items such as the Gaika dungaree, Zweli shimmering midi dress, Orlan t-shirt with the sleeve whose style one can play with, and the Mead skirt or Heath trousers all hold a definitive femininity in their form. The design finishes of the garments reflect elegance and boldness while the fabrics retain the functionality and permanence expected from womanhood by women themselves, other people, and different cultures. 

The Amanda Laird Cherry brand is for the majority of women who have reached a certain level of success in their careers or general lives. As such, they want to make a statement in the spaces that demand their presence and choose to celebrate their achievements or identities in style. Additionally, to men who value self-expressiveness and timelessness, are stylish, and down with the culture. 

In September 2019, Amanda Laird Cherry was crowned Fashion Designer of the Year at the World Fashion Awards in London. To this day, her brand stays rooted in South African culture as it continues to change and as we are nostalgic about it. Two years from now, the brand will turn thirty and only time will reveal how their newer styles continue to tell more South African stories and make us think about our society from the perspective of fashion.

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