For Cape Town-based designer Celeste Arendse, creativity comes secondary to the state of being centered. It is an introspective balancing act between being active, being in nature and journaling that have influenced the “Being” collection for her womenswear brand SELFI. Drawing from the endless source of the indigenous Khoisan roots of South Africa, Celeste’s design journey never loses sight of moving towards the natural part of needing less and being immersed in holistic and sustainable quality.
In drawing textural and color inspiration from the forests surrounding the Mother City’s Table Mountain, Celeste invites a global audience to incorporate Khoisan culture into their daily lives. Be it through the rust browns hues that reflect the ground in Deer Park on her regular nature walks, or the muted greens of cancer bush, a native tea Celeste drinks as part of her morning rituals for its healing properties and ability to quell anxiety. Celeste also reclaims the once vilified and now celebrated curves of the African female form, identifiable in the sleeves of some dresses in the collection; each piece is presented as a protective layer to your space of wellness and feeling good.
As tumultuous as times have been, the upside of downscaling in the face the pandemic has been what Celeste describes as a “much-needed reset.” The closing of the flagship store in Cape Town’s CBD and moving into a smaller studio space in the Salt River neighborhood allowed Celeste and her team to re-focus on design and to become more hands-on with product and development. South Africa went under one of the continent’s strictest lockdowns in March 2020, so re-shifting attention to online sales and minimizing customer walk-ins fortified Celeste’s belief that the SELFI brand can survive a time like this, and it has. The culmination is a minimalist and intuitively sophisticated collection that reclaims the past through a research-based approach to design, always remembering the future through the local plant-based fibers that embody SELFI garments.
Chaze Matakala spoke with designer Celeste Arendse about healing rituals, and how her personal practices, environment and heritage have been woven into the texture and colors of the SS21 collection “Being”.
Shop the Stone Oval Sleeve Jumpsuit by SELFI
What are some of the rituals and practices that have brought you healing in this tumultuous time?
It’s something I’ve been working one since forever, having these little rituals to keep me centered. I’ve always been into holistic remedies and ways to connect. One of the ladies who sews for me, she is actually Khoisan so she introduced me to the cancer bush tea and I’ve been drinking that in the mornings to help with anxiety and stress. The last four years have been a time where my energy has been all over the place and I was quite out of touch with myself and the reason why I am doing what I am doing. I’ve become more grounded by being more active with centering myself and meditating. So once a day I meditate to Deepak Chopra, I go to the gym, I go to the mountain. Journaling is such a big part of reflecting and reconnecting to yourself, just releasing thoughts and I try to do that once a day. I also try to see less people and only those who really fill me up.
What does the team behind SELFI look like? In what ways have you collectively persevered through the pandemic?
At the moment the team is four people who construct the garments; it’s myself, my assistant and then there are two ladies that sew everything up. After closing the store, we moved into a smaller studio space, but I like it more because I can design more intensively. I always felt quite visible with having a store and I’m quite a private person. The idea of having AKJP as the space for people to go to is something I really enjoy. I’m liking the downscaling of things; for me, emotionally, it’s where I want to be right now.
What roles do color and texture play in the “Being” collection?
Everything! With this collection we looked at the Khoi culture, their daily practices and herbs. I pulled colors from the herbs they use, such as sage, buchu and cancer bush, which are all muted greens. Also, their skin tones and the colors they wear, which are these deep sun-kissed rust browns. And the cream color of the ostrich egg was this pattern that we used resembling the egg they drink from and store water in. I found that the Khoisan are very sustainably-minded people – they are always giving thanks when they pull anything from the earth. The whole idea of storing water in an egg… If you are going hunting, they will know here that egg is, so they always have these little pockets to sustain themselves.
How does the Khoisan female form present itself in the “Being” collection and why was this important for you to incorporate?
I think I’ve always been a shape and silhouette person. For me, the female form is a representation of their beauty. The idea of finding your identity through culture and trying to understand where you come from. I’ve learnt through this collection that it’s important to share more of my personal experience through a launch, being more in depth with what I mean. Looking forward to the next collection I will continue with the research so that I can tell the story better.
Shop the Black Oval Sleeve Jumpsuit by SELFI
What are the steps taken you have taken to address sustainability, both in the industry at large, and specifically at SELFI?
Definitely through fabrication. I’ve narrowed down to five fabrics that we use: linen, silk, hemp, ramie and rayon. One of the reasons I choose to work with plant-based fibers, and I am strict on it, is because it disintegrates into the earth quicker than polyester and it doesn’t release any chemicals, and it also doesn’t add to microfiber pollution. Also recycling the fabrics by donating them to be repurposed. We’ve been donating our samples and mock trials to St Anne’s Home for abused women and children in Woodstock. They have their own sewing room, so they either keep the clothing or repurpose the fabric. Within the wider industry, I’ve been approached by an online retailer in London where they are doing this “rent a garment” program. They buy all luxury brands and people can rent it out to wear. They work with brands that I like, and it’s that whole cycle of the idea that people should buy less and rather flow in the idea of a circular economy.
Do you believe fashion has the power to represent in material form the past and future of the African continent?
I definitely think it does, through textiles, through concepts and research of different cloths and materials. This can then be reinvented in a modern way. But it should be done in a way to also preserve heritage and that’s what I am trying to do by doing research into the Khoisan culture. This is going to be an ongoing storytelling thing for me and I am just taking my time with it. Learning more about what’s actually happening on the ground. Fashion can tell the stories so that it can live through our history.
Words by Chaze Matakala
Images courtesy of SELFI
Chaze Matakala is a multidisciplinary artist, culture writer and academic based in Cape Town, South Africa.