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06.28.10

South African Style and Substance

Mital Shah and publisher Well Souled put the beauty of South Africa in a luxe linen-bound monograph.

Though the eyes of the world are focused on South Africa during the World Cup, Well Souled offers a different lens through which to view the nation’s boundless beauty, far beyond football: South Africa, a giant, gorgeous, slick book of photography and short texts. Founded by former Vera Wang executive Mital Shah two years ago, Well Souled aims to publish unique travel tomes that document the style and interconnectivity of people and places. The “soul” of it is that the company gives back a percentage of the sales to social organizations in the locale explored. South Africa, the first installment in the series, introduces us to the country’s style arbiters through powerful portraits and insightful interviews, and breathtaking panoramas of cities, nature, fashions, and foods.

Click here to VIEW OUR GALLERY of some of Well Souled’s striking images

When she arrived in South Africa without an itinerary and only a handful of contacts, Shah asked each person she met, “How do you define style?” Following the threads of conversation, she discovered a soulful way of travel based on spontaneity, where one thing leads to the next. Well Souled tries to reflect the lives of real people—artists, designers, dancers, models, athletes, musicians, and chefs—that help shape the vitality of a culture. Off Shah’s beaten path, we meet a Durban tailor who’s known for his patchwork pants, a furniture designer who diffuses light with ostrich feathers, and a singer for an Afro-pop band that tackles social issues, such as AIDS and abuse.

South Africa is divided into seven beautifully designed sections: Expression, Ubuntu, Inspiration, Devotion, Harmony, Camaraderie, and Destination. “Expression” introduces Venantia Otto, the 2006 winner of the Face of Africa; some primping and pampering at the Ebony Hair Salon outside Capetown; and South Africa Fashion Week in Johannesburg. “Devotion” offers a playlist from radio DJ Sanza “De Fanatik;” a quote from writer Peter Makurube about “laughter” being the one word that best describes South Africa; and a look at the players and dedicated fans of the Orlando (South Africa, not Florida) Pirates football team. “Destination,” meanwhile, presents a panoply of nightlife hotspots, serene beaches, and luscious vineyards.

Watch clips from South African designer Clive Rundle at S.A. Fashion Week

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The compelling photography of Mark Leibowitz and Gerard Förster, who shot original frames for the book, is mingled with vintage images of trendsetters from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s in the pages of Drum Magazine —the era’s South African equivalent of Life. Interspersed are the occasional illustration, piece of sheet music, or recipe. Contributing writers conduct most of the interviews, but the key text for the book is Shah’s personal, poetic observations of the people she meets and places she visits, which give volume to the threads she weaves. Instead of simply offering a voyeuristic view, the book fills you with the sense of being in South Africa, and later, a longing to return. It’s a marriage of style, culture, and purpose—a model that the publisher plans to take to other countries with untold stories.

Shah’s vision for Well Souled is an admirable one, but the South Africa portion of it ends all too soon—copies are only available until July 2nd, at which point Shah will turn her focus to the next place, from which one hopes she will create something equally powerful.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Paul Laster is the editor of Artkrush.com, a contributing editor at Flavorpill.com and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.