JOHANNESBURG — This sprawling city is South Africa’s economic hub, attracting people from all over the country, the continent and beyond.
How its almost six million residents adorn themselves is equally varied, with some choosing to reflect their dreams while others strive to hold onto pieces of home or celebrate elements of this fast-changing metropolis.
Maria McCloy, for example, came to the city from Lesotho. A public relations agent turned fashion designer, she likes to wander the city’s streets, where she has encountered Tsonga, Zulu and Ndebele beaders and artisans from all over Africa who call the city home.
Their creations usually are reserved for weddings, thanksgivings or coming-of-age ceremonies, but Ms. McCloy, 45, began wearing them to red carpet events or parties. And — a collector since her peripatetic childhood that included London; Lagos, Nigeria; and Khartoum, Sudan — she has been adding them to her accessories collection, which is heavy with beads and brass, fabric and leather.
Cognizant that wearing a Ndebele initiation apron as a necklace could be seen as appropriation, Ms. McCloy said she works with craftspeople who know the culture and relies on their guidance.
After all, in a globalized economy where China dominates Africa’s fabric trade, where brass and metal pieces are increasingly imported from India, and where local manufacturers struggle to survive, what is authentic in a city like Johannesburg?
Ms. McCloy said she hated the word “authentic.” There is no single definition of being African, she said, just as there is no single way residents should dress.
“It’s a stylish, evolving Pan-African, very rooted city,” Ms. McCloy said. “Despite what’s happened to people, apartheid and colonialism didn’t kill people’s self-love, creativity, sense of occasion and style.” Here are four more examples.
Chartered accountant and radio broadcaster
In rural KwaZulu-Natal, where Khaya Sithole grew up, the traditional headband he wears — a umqhele — is unremarkable.
In Johannesburg, the goatskin band around his forehead elicits curiosity, delight or prejudice. “It already enables people to crystallize what your most likely identity is going to be,” said Mr. Sithole, 35.
He first wore a umqhele during a TV interview to hide the fact he needed a haircut. Much to his surprise, the audience seemed more interested in his accessory than his economic analysis so he said he now wears it into boardrooms and meetings to show that he can embrace his Zulu culture in a corporate space.
His most interesting responses, and insults, have come from other Black people, Mr. Sithole said, like the politician who dismissed him for wearing a “dead goat” on his head. While Black South Africans embrace traditional clothing and accessories at special occasions, in corporate or professional settings they seem to shy away from cultural symbols, Mr. Sithole said.
“Far too many young people that look like me have just been conditioned” to be uncomfortable in those kinds of situations, he said.
Stylist and manager of Wizards Vintage, a vintage clothing store
In a city that seems to define itself by its future, Karin Orzol holds on to the past. “I am a very big collector, some call me an ec-lector,” said Ms. Orzol, 46. “Everything has meaning, I’m incredibly sentimental.”
It is a trait she inherited from her mother, who keeps what she described as “a cupboard full of memories” — like family keepsakes and childhood drawings — and now distributes them as gifts.
The antique mesh purse that Ms. Orzol cherishes carries more than a century of memories. Her great-grandmother carried the purse from England to South Africa in the second half of the 19th century. As years passed and the family moved around the country, the purse was passed from daughter to daughter.
Her mother gave her the purse when Ms. Orzol was in her late 20s and about to set off on her own adventures. Today, she varies its look by attaching it to larger bags or changing the strap.
Much like her view of Johannesburg — a city of surprising depth if you know where to look, she said — Ms. Orzol’s purse does not conform: “There are no rules; I carry during the day or at night. It’s not just for special occasions, so it appears at random, random moments.”
Stylist and fashion reseller
It was the smiley faces hanging around the neck of the New York rapper ASAP Rocky in an Instagram photo that caught Lethabo Pilane’s eye.
A thrifter, as a fashion reseller is called in Johannesburg, he tapped into an online community and found a reseller in Britain offering one of the same necklaces. The Evae+ piece cost 120 euros ($136), but shipping it to South Africa cost an additional €70. He still decided to go for it.
When the necklace arrived — with its butterflies and dice charms, topped off with yellow smiley faces — it matched Mr. Pilane’s aesthetic and personality perfectly. “I’m such a happy guy,” he said.
Mr. Pilane, 25, prefers to stack the necklace with other colorful, unexpected pieces, like bright beads or pearls, for a style that straddles street and high-end, and fits right into Maboneng, the trendy inner-city neighborhood he has called home since 2017.
He came to Johannesburg the year before, leaving the mining city of Rustenburg to study fashion before dropping out to focus on the city’s growing thrifting market. Now he spends his days in the city center, sifting through mountains of secondhand clothes that have been shipped in from the United States, Britain, China and Japan and selling them to everyone from students to professionals.
“You’re actually saving the world” by buying secondhand, he said, “because when you come to check all the harm that fast fashion is doing to the world, it’s just crazy.”
Nesanet Abera Tumssa
Owner of Netsi Ethiopia Restaurant and importer
When Nesanet Abera Tumssa left Addis Ababa in 2005, her mother made sure she was carrying sand from the Patriarchate Monastery of Holy of Holies Mary, the church in the center of Ethiopia’s capital where Ms. Tumssa was baptized.
The sand is inside a pendant topped with a silver dome that has a picture of the Virgin Mary taped on the underside. Her mother “blessed me, to protect me,” said Ms. Tumssa, 43, and she now wears the pendant as a necklace.
South Africa was meant to be a stopover to Ireland, where Ms. Tumssa planned to study engineering. But she fell in love with Johannesburg’s frenzy and became part of the city’s large immigrant community.
Following in the footsteps of her mother, who runs a restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ms. Tumssa opened a restaurant that serves tourists and Johannesburg’s Ethiopian diaspora in search of a bottle of St. George’s beer. She also recognized that there was a market for Ethiopian coffee and cuisine, and now imports ingredients for the increasing number of Ethiopian restaurants around the city.
Despite the attacks on African immigrants that erupt in the city every few years, Ms. Tumssa is determined to share Ethiopian culture with its residents. Johannesburg can be “aggressive,” she said, but it is also “freedom.”