When fighting erupted in Juba, South Sudan more than a year ago between government forces and rebels loyal to an ousted vice president, it threatened to unravel everything the new country had built, both physically and culturally. One such cultural touchstone was Juba’s emerging fashion industry, led by designers such as Akuja de Garang. Her annual Festival of Fashion & Arts for Peace has drawn the attention of international press, which hailed her as one of South Sudan’s enterprising repats helping define the new country’s cultural identity.
In the days before the recent fighting began, another South Sudanese designer, Nyanut von Habsburg-Lothringen, had her work on display in a two-night fashion show in the courtyard of Home and Away, an upscale Thai restaurant popular among aid workers and oil-industry expats. It was a vast space: an outdoor eating area covered by trees, umbrellas and vines, with a large parking lot for the SUVs of NGO personnel and a large banquet area that hosted the catwalk.
Backstage, there was the busy energy of a N.Y. fashion show, but with no makeup artists and lots of concertina wire.
Nyanut markets her designs under the brand Nile Style and has produced several such shows over the years, not only to exhibit her clothing, but also to create opportunities for working and aspiring models in South Sudan. She also moonlights as the Miss World franchise holder for South Sudan, helping send the country’s candidates to China and Indonesia for the last two years’ competitions.
I have photographed everything from the war in Iraq to New York Fashion Week, and I stumbled upon this show while in Juba on another assignment. The scene struck me as familiar. Like many events in the developing world that try to emulate their counterparts in the first, it looked impeccable from afar, although closer inspection revealed the homespun nature of the show: the wobbly, uneven catwalk; the novice DJ with cheesy jokes. Backstage, the atmosphere had the same upbeat and busy energy of a New York fashion show, except with no makeup artists and lots of concertina wire on the wall enclosing the venue.
But Nyanut seemed unstressed, as did the models. Some of them were amateurs, while others were already working in the modeling industry. All were trying to follow in the footsteps of Alek Wek, South Sudan’s most famous supermodel, who, since making it big in America, has worked to bring attention to the problems in the country of her birth.
Two days after the show, the eruption of violence plunged the country into renewed turmoil. Nyanut, who divides her time between South Sudan and Kenya, left for Nairobi just before Christmas. There, she is now organizing a series of events — from fashion shows to discussion forums for South Sudanese refugees and diaspora — that “aim to build bridges between our divided people,” she wrote in a recent email. “The aim is to keep challenging ourselves to find a way forward.”
A fragile cease-fire was negotiated in January, and then promptly disregarded. Juba is calmer now, but fighting continues in several South Sudanese territories. Fashion shows are a small example of what hangs in the balance: the aspirations of the models and designers for a normal life with the ability to be in fashion.
The images below were taken as the models prepared backstage on the first night of Juba Fashion Week, Dec. 12, 2013 in Juba, South Sudan.
This OZY encore was originally published in March 2014.
Why you should care
Because style can sneak up on you from many places beyond New York, Paris and Milan.