Shaldon Kopman.
Shaldon Kopman.
Image: Supplied

This June, Wanted explores the complex world of masculinity through conversations, personal essays and interviews.

Shaldon Kopman is an icon of South African fashion in his own right and through his acclaimed bespoke atelier, Naked Ape. Kopman started his career as a model and was schooled in fashion in his subsequent role of stylist in all the fashion capitals of the world.

This year, Naked Ape was named as the men’s wear label of the year at the inaugural Fashion Industry Awards by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.

How would you personally define masculinity?

I'm very in tune with my feminine side; growing up with a single mom, being exposed to a lot of females in terms of the company that I chose to keep and so forth, I have always felt more comfort and more service within female company — at no time did I feel the want or need to be with males. Later in life, I started bonding with more elders and family — uncles and so forth — and my grandfather was a great pillar. He died when I was very young. He was just a really solid gentleman, not well off in any way, but quite a well-rounded individual in terms of the essence of his being and masculinity.

So when we speak about masculinity, I would always refer to him as a pillar of masculinity. He was gentle, he was a gentleman. I think the term “gentleman” is often confused in modern times, and machismo and the aggressive alpha-male stereotype gets perceived as masculine, yet that’s not how I see masculinity. I think masculinity is very much that of being a gentleman and being able to respect all humans and nature alike, to respect what you put into your body and ultimately know that you are what you consume.

Generally, any male within the fashion industry is perceived to be effeminate. Within the industry, a lot of people wonder who I am; the people that know, know, but it’s not something that I have to enforce: “I'm not gay, I'm straight” kind of thing. I am who I am; I’m very comfortable with myself, in all environments and with all people. 

How have these ideas of masculinity affected you?

I would say that there have been opportunities in the past where I needed to be more effeminate to get the job, especially when I was a fashion editor. I have always been true to myself, I won’t compromise the essence of my being for any financial gain or to get to the next level.

So sometimes I find myself in environments where I could intimidate other male individuals and those could be the ones who decide on who gets the job. I think that’s where the effect took place, but I let it go and carry on. If it’s not right, it’s not right; the minute you start compromising yourself, it’s going to end in disaster.

How have these ideas changed for you over time?

I would say I’ve become more refined as an individual, more knowing of the self. We are always learning more about ourselves as we grow and trying to find a certain kind of security within ourselves. I had to search for my own path and it was not mapped out for me — sometimes the ones that are mapped out come and bite you in the back later on in life. You think that you are doing the right thing, because of what society says; all the masculine figures within the family say, “Do that and you'll be all right”.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I consider myself an artist and it’s not that easy to find your space. Everybody has their time and everybody has their moment when they shine, but that’s once they realise who they are. Sometimes you could be led down a completely different path only to find out, years later, that this is something that you don’t like, and then things go wild and you go wild. Then you come around the corner and you think, “OK, I know what I want. Now I’m going to do it”. It’s never too late in life.

How do you see societal ideas of masculinity changing in the future?

It’s been changing. Gender fluid is everything of modern living and it’s not going to change. Of course, there are conservatives; whether they are within the European, American, Asian or African spaces, you’re going to have those conservatives who will always battle it, because they have a strict way of living. Most things I agree with, but there are a lot of things that just don’t make sense to me.

Yet, masculinity and gender are going to be more fluid. The age of masculinity — perceived masculinity — is going to diminish fast, or it’s going to drive people to the extreme right. That is when you become the aggressive alpha male. Chivalry still exists. I believe in chivalry. I believe in ladies first, gentlemen after. I believe in certain mannerisms of treating a lady; you give her that throne, you walk past and you acknowledge her, “Good day ma’am, how are you?”

What we need is simplicity and people staying true to themselves

The effort that women make in terms of “beautifying” themselves — grooming, the nails, the hair, the skin, clothing, all of that — men just don’t make enough of an effort. That is a big issue that I have and making that effort does not mean you need to be a peacock, it just means that you’ve got an idea of basic grooming. If we look at West African men, for example, we see a lot of gentlemen; well groomed, well poised well represented in society.

That is something that we don’t have, or we take very much for granted in the southern region of Africa. You’ll find certain regions within Europe that are very much the same. You see what has happened with fashion and you see how slouchy and lazy people have become; everything becomes acceptable, yet it still carries the same price tag. It doesn’t have anything near the finesse that garment-making has. It’s a trend that I hope goes away sooner rather than later.

What advice would you give about coping with masculinity?

Be true to yourself — that’s where it starts and where it ends. There’ll be things that you’ll want to experiment with, but always come back to you. That is a very important thing to understand, and you just keep on keeping on. Sometimes the entire tide, the entire nation, will be against you, but if you’re not doing the wrong thing, if you’re not being malicious, or harming anybody in your space or harming the earth, then you just carry on. Tides turn, and even if they don’t in your lifetime, it’s still OK for you to be you.

People speak about trends. There are too many trends going on in life all at once, too many. For you to keep up with them sucks you up. There are very few people that can do that. Those people that can are influencers, because they will just go with whatever. Yet you, as an individual, trying to keep up with that financially is almost impossible — it’s wasteful, it’s unnecessary and it’s cluttered and you become a victim of yourself and over indulgence.

I think simplicity is very important for us to understand; simplicity is very much an approach to this space of masculinity. Keep it real, but really just keep it simple. There’s too much fuss going on in the world. We don’t need more fuss. What we need is simplicity and people staying true to themselves. The key to masculinity is simplicity.

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