Afro-Gangnam Style: Seeking out Real Relevance

01 Feb 2013|Added Value

This post was originally written for MarkLives.com

The Korean hit Gangnam Style has taken the world by storm, notching up close to 1-billion views on YouTube.  Psy’s parody of the folk living in the affluent and trendy Seoul suburb highlights their rapid increase in personal wealth, manifested in lavish and conspicuous consumption. But is South Korea the only guilty country? And more than that: are they even guilty?

Turning the gaze to South Africa one can easily draw parallels. It is easy to frown on the prevailing glitz and glamour of so called ‘new money’ in our country. However, societies remember and build on where they come from. Self-expression and the desire to be noticed are not alien to many African cultures.

In fact, African cultures are very often expressive cultures where emblems and outward facing symbolism carry social relevance. For example, black culture marked social categories of age, gender, kinship, and rank in their attire and etiquette. A woman’s clothing indicated whether she was married or not, and coming-of-age ceremonies involve display of self-pride and self expression.

And growing up everyone dressed up in their best gear for church on Sunday, holidays like Christmas and Easter, weddings and funerals.

Many will recall the act of ‘swanking’ where hostel-dwelling men put on their best gear to showcase their ‘swanked’ self. This involved status brands like Crockett & Jones and Florsheim shoes (currently approximately $140), Dobshire clothing, and so on. These are seriously exclusive and expensive brands way beyond the pay package of hostel dwellers

Putting Gangnam Style in context in our nation, how does one ensure that this is not lost in the melting pot of colour at end of the rainbow? There is an increased desire for self-definition, recognition and acknowledgement.

In fact, I believe we are a society still ruled by a pre-defined framework and that brands often pander to the prevailing pent up desires where wealth acquisition is taking up a perverse fashion. South Africans can’t be fully expressed on a straight line ranging from rich to poor.

On the one side of the coin, the implication for brands of Afro-Gangnam Style is the risk of being associated with the emptiness of wealth rather than seeking out real relevance and addressing an enduring need.

On the other, brands can ensure greater distinctiveness through a more textured spectrum, especially in a society so diverse. That is, they can be used as ‘words and symbols’ of expression to give self definition and authentic direction.

Some brands are taking this path – Woolworths with its MySchool Card and sustainability focus, Levis with its successful launch of the Eva gangnam style‘Bootlicious’ range (African inspired), KFC with Add Hope and Primedia with LEADSA.

There is also the young and highly expressive youngsters Smarteez, who have created a distinctive street fashion label that has caught the eye of the international fashion media, and the more established Stoned Cherrie with its more modern expression of African wear. For me, both these labels express a real desire for self-definition and ensure that authentic African expressions are not lost.

There is a low-key trend which Added Value has termed ‘Afro Luxe’, which marries the very modern world with Africa’s very traditional one. It is not international expression with an African spin; instead it is modern African luxury. The trend regards luxury as authenticity, vibrancy and dynamism, and taps into a growing desire of South Africans to do things their way and express who they are in the lifestyle choices.

For brands, the opportunity exists to go beyond the obvious and truly delve into our culture to ensure richer granularity.

Some may question whether this is the role of brands, I say the more we do this, the more South Africa can influence the world at large.

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Masingita Mazibuko is an Associate Director at Added Value South Africa and is a regular columnist for MarkLives.

Image found in the public domain.

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