Sistaaz of the Castle: fashion dreams of Cape Town’s trans sex workers

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Dutch photographer Jan Hoek and fashion designer Duran Lantink have always shared an interest in working with models that are different. In his documentary photography, Hoek’s subjects range from homeless people who “look like kings” to heroin addicts with a modelling dream.

Lantink uses amateur models in his shows, while employing unconventional design techniques and recycled fabrics to symbolise the different layers of society. Discovering the powerful, unique looks of South Africa’s transgender sex worker community was a coincidence, but one that instantly captured both their imaginations.

Suega and Cleopatra On Burger

In Sistaaz of the Castle, Hoek and Lantink zoom in on six girls from transgender support group Sistaazhood, part of the Cape Town sex workers’ organisation SWEAT. Shot under a bridge beside the capital’s castle – the closest thing to a home for most of the girls – Hoek’s photographs show the realities of their lives in parallel with the extraordinary inventiveness that goes into creating their customised outfits.

Flavinia - Miss Africa Dream Picture
Flavinia – Miss Africa Dream Picture

The images express a different story, one that focuses on the girls’ intuitive sense of fashion, rather than the hardships and violence normally associated with their community.

“The pictures weren’t really about sex work, there’s so much more to their lives,” explains Hoek, “the way they dress is why they are muses to us. It might be sexy, but not in the most obvious way.”

Cleopatra and Jennifer under the bridge

Lantink, who saw a similarity between the girls’ approach to styling and his own design process, agrees: “They have this amazing style, this intuition. For me, it is about trying to present the girls in the way I see them, it’s trying to tell their story.”

Despite the variety in their backgrounds, ages and skin colour – of particular impact in a country as culturally diverse and complex as South Africa – there are similarities in the girls’ stories, from drug and alcohol addiction to a shared displacement from their families. But what really stands out is a collective desire to embrace their uniqueness, to do more than just survive.

Cleopatra in front of the fountain
Cleopatra in front of the fountain

Sulaiga, 30, and Joan Collins, 57, both used to adapt their schoolboy uniform to look more feminine. “I didn’t like high school,” says Joan Collins, “I always felt out of place… I would rather wear tight clothes to show off my figure.” Gabby, 29, feels the same even today: “I always go for clothes that others wouldn’t wear. I want to be unique. I hate matching outfits or things that look alike. I always tried my best to customise it into something special.

“It’s so strange that on the one hand they have a marginalised position,” says Hoek, “yet they fight for the right to improve it, for better rights and protection, and against the stigma of their work and gender. You also see the power to make something from it, to be together and also creative.”

Joan Collins - dream picture in wedding dress
Joan Collins – dream picture in wedding dress

Hoek and Lantink asked the girls how they would like to look if there were no limitations. Their fantasises – many of which have in fact been attained through their own hard work and dedication – are translated into Lantink’s latest couture collection, photographed by Hoek for the exhibition and a forthcoming publication.

“The dreams tell a lot about the message we want to give from the girls,” continues Hoek, “I think it is so interesting that they can be so different. For example, Gabby: people always assume that sex workers dream to come out of sex work and have a normal, family life; she says, ‘No, fuck that, I want to do sex work in a different surrounding, in a Victorian brothel called Lady Marmalade, surrounded by gold.’ That photo is not only a personal dream, but also a wish about the position of sex workers in general. Then you have the opposite: Joan Collins’ dream was always to marry. I think it’s good to show these things next to one another.”

Coco getting changed
Coco getting changed

The project was fully realised at Lantink’s Amsterdam fashion week presentation this month. Hoek’s documentary images were shown interspersed with his dream-scenario photographs, before models walked the runway wearing Lantink’s Sistaazhood-inspired designs to a soundtrack incorporating the girls’ voices, explaining their dreams in their own words.

Most significantly, the models were from various backgrounds, genders and professions – a fitting affirmation of seeing the positive, where typically society sees only difference.

Flavinia and Sulega drinking tea backstage
Flavinia and Sulega drinking tea backstage

Both Hoek and Lantink agree that the project has become something bigger than they ever expected. The next step is to return to South Africa to present the Sistaaz of the Castle project on its original site and for the girls to walk their own catwalk show.

“It started with our own dream,” says Hoek, “and then we got to know the girls and their dream got involved, too, and they were somehow in the same direction. It was all about how we can mix it: photography in a fashion show, fashion in photography.”