Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Growing up, Gugu Peteni was often confused with her twin sister, and at some point, she felt her sense of individuality was fading away. As she got older, her style did as well (it was “very cringe looking back,” she said) and people started noticing her creativity. It was during this time that she discovered fashion as a tool for identity-forming and communication.
“I think that’s when I truly fell in love with fashion and dove straight deep. I wanted to explore and learn more but on the conceptual side. Not just getting dressed every day; I was very interested in what else it means to get ready.”
She also sewed clothes for her dolls out of curtains and tablecloths. Despite possessing the firmness and structure consistent with androgynous clothing, this sense of childlike playfulness still manifests in her designs today.
However, the South African designer has come a long way from mere dressmaking. Her résumé now boasts of building her streetwear brand Gugu By Gugu, contesting in South Africa’s inaugural season of Project Runway, and recently debuting a collection at Lagos Fashion Week.
In this interview, she shares her approach to commercialism, the inspiration behind her Lagos Fashion Week collection, developing eco-conscious fashion, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I like that you talk about getting dressed because it’s such an instrumental part of our day. We ask, “How do I want to present to the world today?” So, looking at Gugu By Gugu, which is a streetwear brand, what made you decide you wanted to communicate this image?
I allowed myself the space to form my design journey and how I wanted to be perceived. In varsity [university] I was more conceptual; my style was very avant-garde. It wasn’t really everyday wear, and then I realized post-grad that I needed to commercialize my brand. Instead of just waking up and making T-shirts because they sell, I took a good year to kind of fuse and merge the artistic and commercial sides of fashion which brought me to edgy streetwear that everyone can wear but is still on the [bolder], more fashionable, and more conscious side. I think I’m still getting to where I feel is my true aesthetic, but I’m very comfortable in where I am right now.
How are you sure what will appeal to the masses and what won’t?
I think it’s through engagement. I’m always listening to what people say, and obviously, I also know my market really well. I come from a very small town in South Africa [Port-Elizabeth]; it’s a bit more conservative than the rest of South Africa and bigger towns, so there’s a very small pool of people that are going to buy [my pieces]. They might love it and say it’s beautiful and artistic, but not a lot of people will say they can rock it. So, it’s only in my outside markets like Joburg and Capetown that I know people will vibe with it fully. But here, I know exactly where the mindset is and what people like.
Besides the pieces you put out, what goes into building Gugu By Gugu as a brand?
A lot [laughs]. I don’t have a really big team, so I do everything by myself. People don’t understand that buying from a local brand and buying from like Zara and H&M [is different]. If I make a product, I do the design, I cut the patterns, I sew the pieces together, I fold the item and I deliver it to you. Whereas at high-end stores, everything is computerized and nobody really cares about the end-consumer. My heart and everything goes into it; it’s personal for me — it’s all the physical work, the mental work, the creative work, and the financial work as well.
Let’s actually touch a bit on that. I think a lot of creatives struggle with merging creativity and business. What has that been like for you?
It’s been a struggle. I think that’s why it took me a year and a half to brand post-grad. I realized I was an artist, and that was it. I was not a businessperson; I didn’t understand finances and what goes into a business and I didn’t want to jump straight into it because I didn’t want to fail. Before varsity, I interned and watched a lot of small brands start up and stop within two years, so I was like, I’m really going to put in all my energy to make sure I do this right and do it once!
I took my time. I went to workshops, I spoke to business people, I spoke to accountants, I got all the legal advice I could get, and I’m still learning on the spot. There’s nothing anyone can tell you that prepares you for getting into business.
What has the process of getting investors and financial backing been like?
It’s been a hard one. There are platforms, but it’s a matter of putting yourself out there. In order to put yourself out there, you need to already have some form of a platform to show you’re profitable. They won’t assist you unless you’ve made money, but how do you make money if you need money? Me personally, I had to put in a lot of my money and work extra hard until my business was making some form of profit.
It’s a struggle, but I do reach out and put myself out there on other platforms like Lagos, Nigeria.
Speaking of Lagos Fashion Week (LFW), there’s also South African Fashion Week, so what made you decide to go all the way to Lagos?
Lagos has always been a dream for me. I’ve always been obsessed with the platform itself, and it’s the biggest fashion platform in Africa. I did [South African] Fashion Week last year, but then this opportunity came, and I was like, of course, I’m going to choose Lagos! But also, we found out there was a travel restriction, and we couldn’t fly to Lagos for the longest time. Then only a week before the show, we were told we could go so we probably had a week to do our collections. It was one of those things I needed to cross off my bucket list and was exactly what I thought it would be — so inspiring and very beautiful.
LFW’s general theme was sustainability and the future of fashion. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the collection you designed?
The theme was “The Future Starts Now” and I was thinking I could go the classic route of doing something futuristic or since I’m [in] Africa, incorporate very African styles, but that’s not really me. When I think about the future, I think about where I came from and what brought me to the now, so I reflect. The future for me is reflection. I wanted to create a collection that was very fun, almost like comic relief in the very serious, scientific times we’re living in. My collection was very androgynous; my market is unisex wear, so it reminded me of my younger self and play. I wanted texture, I wanted different colors, I wanted it to just be fun, and I wanted to celebrate being able to show at LFW. I was very inspired by the 90s and I was born in the 90s as well.
When I think about the future, I think about where I came from and what brought me to the now, so I reflect. The future for me is reflection.
What was growing up in South Africa in the 90s like for you?
Growing up was great for me. My family was very colorful. My [parents] had big personalities [and] I had a twin sister and four siblings, so my house was always active. And we had a big extended family as well. We were very close, we played, it was colorful, we laughed, we were outside, we were climbing trees, we were building things with mud. It was very tactile.
Why do you choose unisex/androgynous fashion as opposed to doing menswear and womenswear?
Growing up, I used to go to the men’s aisle to shop for clothes because if I found a T-shirt [there], the same T-shirt would have some dumb print [in the women’s aisle]. Women [also] have different bodies and shapes, so I found female clothing to sometimes be awkward-fitting. With androgynous fashion, it’s more me.
I know you use mohair a lot. Can you tell me why you’ve chosen to make this fabric such a central part of your brand and designs?
Mohair is a fabric from the Angora goats, and [South Africa] is the biggest producer of this fabric in the whole world. 90% of mohair fiber goes through our ports in the Eastern Cape, so for me personally, it was a matter of having something we could be proud of in the fashion space, especially being such a small town where people think nothing really happens.
I could see the goats, see the fabric being processed and put together and I thought that was very beautiful. And [another] major reason is it’s a sustainable fiber, and every eco-conscious decision matters. It’s a golden fiber, it’s lux, and it does make your brand stand apart.
How do you hope your brand grows in the coming years?
For me, I never actually wanted to have a brand starting out. In varsity, I wanted to go into fashion buying or retailing but I remember when I had my first lessons, our lecturer came, and he was showing us Gucci, Chanel, and all these high-end brands. I was like, why don’t we see any African designers up there? I used to hear that fashion was born in Italy, and I wanted to know what was happening in Africa at that time, and he couldn’t really respond. From that day, I was like, you know what? I want to be that brand. I want our voices to be heard. I want people to say, Chanel, Gucci, Gugu. [In the past], African fashion was othered a lot but now, the fashion industry has opened, and we are the faces of fashion. I want a legacy, a lifelong brand. I want another Gugu to be like, “I can do it easily.”
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