Turning pocket change and plastic bags into high fashion


Dennis Chuene’s father never understood fashion. He thought his son’s interest in it was a fleeting curiosity. Nonetheless, when Chuene made it clear that this would be his future his father stood by him, meeting him halfway for the purchase of his first sewing machine. But in spite of his family’s support the industry proved difficult, asking of him what it does of every new hopeful contributor: What will you bring? Chuene was up for the challenge.

After searching for answers within himself while designing clothes in Johannesburg, Chuene sought new surrounds to reinvigorate his creative senses. And it was on the train to Cape Town, which he had boarded with just R15 to his name, that he found the inspiration that would shape his career – Khumbulekhaya travel bags. Mundane. Functional. But fashionable? Chuene thought so. He saw the potential for this everyday item to become something beautiful.

The bags are typically used for carrying groceries, laundry and luggage. The multi-purpose carryalls have come to symbolise practicality rather than style. But Chuene has dissected the bags and sewn them back together with a hint of glamour, creating accessories, coats and dresses with a nostalgic feel for those who know of the material’s origin. His fresh take on a seemingly one-dimensional utility foreshadows his hope for South Africa: we have enough right here, if we’re willing to use a little imagination.

Photographs by Chris Saunders were used in the creation of this film.