Taxi driver swag: Big Zulu's image defies stereotypes associated with rappers

Trends come and go, but some are so deeply rooted that they never die

Big Zulu
Big Zulu
Image: Supplied

When Bergville-born Big Zulu began making waves on the mainstream scene five years ago, his image defied every stereotype ever associated with rappers. For this sharp lyricist, there were no saggy pants and gold grills, nor a faux American accent to complete the picture.

His aesthetic — old-school Brentwood chinos, paired with Carvela loafers, a tucked-in T-shirt, golf shirt sometimes a dice-embellished cardigan — had always been synonymous with mainly Zulu-speaking taxi drivers. Over and above his music commanding attention, his look also solidified him as a trendsetter in the same lane as the likes of fellow Bergville musician Sjava, Okmalumkoolkat, and Stilo Magolide, as well as New Age maskandi artists such as Intaba Yase Dubai, Njoko, and Mzukulu. 

“Sjava’s confidently pulling off the ‘taxi driver’ trend years ago made the local fashion scene sit up and realise that we had been sleeping on what I think is the longest-standing, and coolest, swag Mzansi has ever seen,” says wardrobe designer and stylist Sheli Masondo.

Trend talk

For the Spring/Summer 2021 season, the shift towards an outdoor lifestyle continues to influence men’s fashion — and remains one of the most resilient trends in that market, according to stylist and personal shopper Gavin Mahlangu. “A surge in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and cycling are currently driving menswear trends,” he adds. We also see men leaning towards gender-inclusive collections through bold silhouettes, colour, and tongue-in-cheek prints — all of which showcase the quirky side of the style.

Where fashion (and style) are concerned there are always trendsetters and followers. Even with fashion trends dictating people’s wardrobe choices every season, some aesthetics remain forever engraved on the style wall of fame. Locally, the “taxi driver swag” trend is one such aesthetic. The original wearers of  “taxi driver swag” branded it a style that commanded respect and stood for dignity. These days, the trend’s younger fans have tailored it to modern times without necessarily dumbing down its core values. 

Key staple items — a pair of Brentwood trousers, collar T-shirts, any expensive loafers or Omega sandals — are non-negotiable. Depending on whether you feel like dressing up or down, it can be accessorised with a subtle gold chain, ring or umqhele. “Perfectly tailored high-waisted pants, a staple in this trend, have made a comeback in men’s fashion. The difference is that the ‘taxi driver swag’ trend is more rigidly masculine than experimental,” explains Mahlangu. At face value, this style may look simple and reasonable, but it’s actually on the pricier side of life.

Breaking it down

“We can’t celebrate the ‘taxi driver’ swag trend without acknowledging its origins — older Zulu men who used to dress up this way on weekends after a long week of hard work and basic work clothing,” explains former fashion editor and stylist Tsakane Ndlovu. Ndlovu adds that it’s not unusual for a style to belong to, or be associated with, one ethnic group. What certainly can’t be controlled is whom the style influences. “‘Taxi driver swag’ may have originated among Zulu men, but it has managed to travel far and wide to influence men from other parts of South Africa.”

Dickies and Emerging Brands brand manager Koketso Kganyago agrees, saying that, in the past, the brand was mostly popular with older men in blue-collar jobs. These were men from rural areas who had moved to Joburg in search of greener pastures, and reserved weekends for donning their Sunday best. “They would participate in contests, showing off their outfits to crowds of onlookers. The contestants were often judged on the quality of their clothing and charisma,” says Kganyago.

If there’s any truth to the theory that clothes communicate our innermost thoughts and values, then the “taxi driver swag” trend carries a lot of personality. “It screams authenticity, power, and courage. Its fans don’t conform, are deeply rooted in their culture, and are non-apologetic about their customs. The look also sends a subtle ‘I’m not dressing to please anyone but myself’ message to the world,” Ndlovu says. Mahlangu adds that confidence and being grounded come effortlessly to the quintessential “taxi driver swag” wearer. 

Fashion trends come and go. And for every fashion trend that resurfaces, there’s one that takes a backseat and patiently waits to be recycled. Masondo believes that the “taxi driver” style is too deeply rooted to ever fade or even die. “Look, it may definitely fade for trend followers, but the trendsetter will always perceive it as more of a culturally significant signature look rather than a seasonal trend,” she explains. 

Brands leading the way

With trends constantly reinventing themselves, we are seeing more and more brands previously linked to amapantsula or taxi drivers becoming popular. Dickies and Samson are having a field day on today’s fashion scene. “Over the years, we have seen old-school wardrobe staples such as the bucket hat (iSpottie), the boilersuit, and Italian print shirts becoming popular on the streets again,” says Mahlangu.

Kganyago notes that it has been exciting to see Brentwood being embraced by the next generation. This, he says, feels like of a natural progression. “Fathers and uncles have passed on the Brentwood baton to the younger generation for them to fly the style flag high and with pride.”