There is this notion in art, fashion and design that all originality is prefaced by one’s ‘point of view’. Namely, it is the subjective lens through which we interpret the world that shapes our ideas, our motivations and indeed, our transformation of such ideas into tangible works of art. I would argue that one’s point of view is the strongest weapon in one’s creative arsenal, second only to an eye for detail. Chad-Lee van Wyk is an emerging designer who has been endowed with both to a staggering effect. I was put onto Chad’s brand FORGE by writer Luci Dordley and while I often experience a lot of great work and exceptional perspectives, there was a felt ‘e s s e n c e’ to scrolling through FORGE’s vividly curated Instagram that left me totally speechless. Chad was scouted as a model in Cape Town’s CBD at 17 years old – this was his first introduction to fashion as an industry – but he has been making, interrogating and forging his creative anima long before that fateful moment.
Multiculturalism is embedded in Chad’s viewpoint, least not because it is in his DNA. As a young, coloured and queer man, Chad-Lee’s heritage is a melange of histories, emotions and spirit. It’s why, perhaps, that the brand identity of FORGE is rooted in the observance of everything from textiles, to paintings, to plants and nature, to communities across the world gathering together or simply going about their daily lives. It is why Chad doesn’t need too much time trying to explain FORGE to its followers; it is felt and understood by both Chad’s work and his capacity to grow a perspective that is worth not only noting, but rooting for. It is a high art to transform the mundane into the divine. Chad does so with masterful effortlessness.
“I started making doll clothes for my friends when I was a kid. They’d bring their Barbie dolls over and I’d take my jeans and make little dungarees and dresses out of scrapped denim. At the age of 12, I knew already then that I wanted to become a designer. It was around that time that I went into foster care. I owe that experience to my love for upcycling because it was necessary for me to receive donated clothes and then transform them into my own pieces. Even at that age, I promised myself that if creating clothing and designing was my happy place, that I’d always make sure I could run back to that place.” A few years later, Chad had to go and live with his mother after the passing of his grandma. After attaining a scholarship to study, Chad’s academic focus was central, as he says “you have to maintain a certain standard with a scholarship. I had to be entirely focused on making sure my grades were great, not just good.”
For Chad, finding Battswood Arts Centre in Grassy Park was the turning point. As a community arts program, Battswood fosters the potential of creative expression for their learners across music, drama, dance and visual arts. As Chad says, “I started painting. First with my fingers and then with brushes. The educators had asked me whether painting was what I really wanted to do, and what I really wanted to do was design. Learning to paint taught me so much about the creative process and I think it’s why for FORGE, there is such a strong emphasis on colour and texture.”
A chance interaction in the city led Chad to finding himself signed as a model on the spot when he walked through the doors of the agency. It’s a rare thing to be signing a contract before polaroids are even taken, but this speaks to the strength of Chad’s look; the smouldering, piercing eyes that he employs within seconds of Kent (Andreasen, photographer of this editorial) preparing to capture a shot. Chad’s first job would go on to change the course of his direction and bring him directly back into his first love; fashion and design. As he explains, “that was my first job and it was also my first time driving out of Cape Town. Suddenly, my world was opening up and I was surrounded by industry professionals, interesting people and fellow models. We arrive at this desert area up the west coast and the stylist finally tells us that we are shooting Prada SS17. It made me so emotional. I took a walk away from the set and I started crying.” You can view the editorial for Avaunt Magazine here. This set the tone for what FORGE would become; a manifestation of Chad-Lee’s experiences, hopes and dreams through the lens of design.
It took lockdown and the pandemic for Chad to reassert his focus inwards. After a few seasons walking in South African fashion shows and learning about the industry – he decided it was time to create again, to flex that artistic nature that motivated him as a young kid. Once Chad started knitting and crocheting again, FORGE was born; “the most important thing for me to project is the idea of timelessness. I come from a background in which everything could be precious and everything had to be preserved, so I feel it’s important for FORGE to reflect those same values. I want FORGE to share the idea that character isn’t just derived from newness, but from drawing on different materials, ideas and functions. Growing up and not having really does instil a kind of appreciation that I think we need in fashion.”
Chad’s primary focus is utilising deadstock through upcycling methodologies. I don’t feel there is a more noble or exciting practice in fashion right now than upcycling – the transformative power of ‘waste’ into new life is essential to our queries around a regenerative design future. Chad echoes this, saying “I love that FORGE advocates for honouring different ways of finding materials and making garments. Upcycling is an extension of my understanding of design since I was a kid. As I get better in my skill sets and FORGE grows, I want the brand to offer garments that people will want to preserve, because the pieces themselves have been built through preservation.”
FORGE is a menswear brand that subverts how gender has traditionally been expressed. For Chad, who describes himself as equally able to hold feminine and masculine expression, FORGE is a vehicle for queerness, but also to show that men can engage with feminine silhouettes and expression beyond the gender or sexuality spectrum. I ask Chad how gender expression functions within the label, to which he says “FORGE is by the people, for the people. I wanted to reflect what I have learned by being part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Wearing dresses, jewellery and using our uniqueness through expression is a form of advocacy.”
Outside of Chad’s design practice, he is a hydroponics farmer. Chad lives in Ocean View, a neighbourhood in the southern peninsula of Cape Town that bears the scars of apartheid. The community was created by the state after forced removals of predominantly coloured folks from areas like Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek and Kommetjie took place under the Group Areas Act; ironically, Ocean View no longer has the view of the Atlantic sea that its community were onced used to from their homes. Despite this, urban farming has become a community-enacted tool for dealing with both the historical trauma of the neighbourhood’s origin, with sights set on hope for the future.
I think of ‘kos gangsters’ and my experiences there, a community-based farm led by women in the community. For Chad, hydroponics was his calling “I have always been a nature kid. I was always amazed by the elements and plant life, or how things work and grow. Learning hydroponics was the dealbreaker in terms of what FORGE could be. I saw the waste outside of just fashion, but how all of us take our environments for granted.” Chad recounts one particular morning when he was cleaning out the hydroponic pond. Suddenly it dawned on him that the roots looked like threads and he could ‘weave’ them together. Leaving the roots out to dry, Chad was stunned to realise the direct connection between fibres of these roots and the thread he knits or sews with, “I understood the connection between what I do as a designer and a farmer. The plants teach me patience, they teach me gentleness. I watched seedlings die and then come back to life. I witnessed the regenerative, inner workings of nature. This is now a part of who I am and what FORGE will be, I hope.”
Chad embodies the truth of creativity – especially that art, design and fashion do not exist independently of nature. Nothing in our lives and in our world exists contrarily from the life force that makes up all of existence. FORGE is an emerging brand and one that we have high hopes for. There is talk of an SA Menswear Week showcase – and then LVMH Young Designers prize, maybe? We see it all for Chad, whose energy and curiosity is of the purest kind and whose life story expresses the most transformative, creative and resilient qualities of being human.
Written by: Holly Beaton