Doeks, sanitary pads & the tweet that sparked a revolutionary fashion brand
The next time you hear some exhausted trope about how Millennials are lazy and complacent, think of them: Jo’burg-based sisters Mbali, 24, and Enhle Khumalo, 23.
This student-cum-activist entrepreneurial duo are both currently in the midst of postgraduate degrees at Wits – Mbali is doing her Honours in Anthropology, Enhle her Masters in Politics. They're also the driving force behind MbalEnhleSis, an accessories brand with a revolutionary bent.
The pair didn't plan to pursue careers in the fashion industry, but fate intervened in the form of a viral tweet and an astute observation about a problem that's plaguing many schools in South Africa.
Enhle, the younger of the sisters, had noticed a link between exam truancies on campus and the lack of affordable sanitary pads. Both women have a history of social activism that spans back to their schoolgirl days, so it isn’t surprising that they felt compelled to contribute to a solution.
The solution came from an unlikely source: a Twitter post that included photos of Enhle wearing some beautiful doeks, the first she'd ever bought. The post went viral garnering over a thousand likes, two thousand re-tweets and a slew of comments from people who wanted to get their hands on some doeks of their own.
That's when Mbali and Enhle realised that they might be on to something: they could sell doeks and donate a percentage of the profits towards providing free sanitary pads to women on campus and at schools.
Less than a full year in, MbalEnhleSis has taken off, and the siblings have branched out to include African-inspired tribal-print sneakers and sandals in their product range. "We’ve been really lucky, we’ve had some brilliant partnerships with the department of Arts and Culture, and with businesswomen like Mpho Masondo,” says Enhle.
Not content simply to donate cash to a good cause, the Khumalos view their venture as a significant opportunity to contribute to the empowerment of others.
When contracting people to produce their vibrantly-printed doeks, they've made a concerted effort to involve differently-abled women, and black women in particular. "The idea that, the better we did, the better they did, made absolute sense for us,” they say.
Inspired in part by the liberating potency of the #RespectTheDoek phenomenon in 2016 – this hashtag circulated in support of a professional woman who was warned that her doek was inappropriate for work – and by the prospect of, as Mbali puts it, “reclaiming stock narratives” about blackness and femininity, they also see the MbalEnhleSis brand as a way to challenge and dismantle prevailing stereotypes.
"Historically the doek has represented something completely different from how we imagine it these days. It’s about identity, which is ever transforming. We find ourselves in a position where we can actively reimagine what the head wrap is about.”
Part of this “active re-imagination” includes their insistence that their doeks are not exclusively for women; they encourage men to overcome their gendered inhibitions and embrace the head wrap.