Heritage is the thread that binds SA's most acclaimed fashion designers
What makes local fashion stand out on the global stage? Designs that draw on their creator's unique cultures, writes Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine
'To know others is wise, to know yourself is enlightening."
These words were written by Laduma Ngxokolo, founder of knitwear brand Maxhosa Africa, on Heritage Day last year and pinned to his Twitter account.
Almost a year later, the label presented its first showcase, the SS20 collection, titled SiziKumkani nee Kumkanikazi (meaning we are the kings and queens) at New York Fashion Week this month.
For the few moments that will be marked as a highlight in SA's fashion history, the New York runway was awash with some of the best Africa has to offer, and a full display of Ngxokolo's Xhosa heritage.
SA's designers are expressing their cultural diversity in the textiles they create, the unique silhouettes they reimagine and the garments they fashion. The fashion industry's most successful exports, such as Ngxokolo, Thebe Magugu, Black Coffee, Ephymol and Mantsho, to name a few, share a common thread: a proud celebration and display of heritage.
"Every African person, every black person, is a king and a queen and they should look at themselves in that way and never diminish themselves among society," Ngxokolo told the Hollywood Reporter.
Maxhosa's first collection was inspired by a desire to create a wardrobe for young initiates - following the Amakrwala rite of passage - that properly represented their new life as modern Xhosa men. Xhosa beadwork motifs and patterns are the DNA of a brand that is locally and internationally lauded not only for its high quality and attention to detail, but also for its communication of deep cultural meaning.
In another African first, Mantsho's Palesa Mokubung collaborated with H&M on its designer capsule collections, a project that has been running for the past 15 years.
Established in 2004, Mantsho, meaning "black is beautiful" in Sesotho, became known for using shweshwe, a fabric favoured by Xhosa and Basotho women, as a calling card in her designs.
Her limited-edition collection, available globally at H&M stores, features the signature Mantsho flower designed by her brother, Mojalefa Mokubung. It comprises her face and elements of shweshwe. Known for her bold prints and patterns and feminine yet edgy silhouettes, her designs take inspiration from her heritage as much as they do from African women.
Says Black Coffee's Jacques van der Watt: "I grew up in the Eastern Cape. I'm Afrikaans but I have always loved traditional Xhosa clothing. We didn't have much available in the Eastern Cape so I started getting seamstresses to make stuff for me and some of my family members. I would change existing patterns to get what I wanted. This was my first introduction to design."
It is this ingenuity that has come to distinguish Black Coffee designs, which are modern, architectural and rather breathtaking in their lines and construction.
"I look at many influences such as Romeo Gigli, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Clive Rundle, Albertus Swanepoel ... including my own Afrikaner heritage with all its baggage. I also like exploring the similarities between Africa and Japan, the way things are cut quite simply as well as the fabric prints.
"I never like it when something only has one influence. I'm sure that's something I've learnt, living in such a multicultural place."
Mokubung, Van der Watt and Ngxokolo are among a handful of South African fashion labels that enjoy both local and international success. They all bear the same trademark: through their designs and unique and researched perspectives, they are advocates of a refreshed South African narrative that celebrates both our traditional and cultural heritage.
At the Rosebank, Johannesburg, offices of the Fashion Agent, a fashion wholesale agency and distribution company, its founder Annette Pringle-Kölsch has just finished a client consultation. The former Hugo Boss global brand manager develops and works with African micro-labels on collection planning, manufacturing and distribution. She represents, among other designer talent, Thebe Magugu.
As we chat, she picks up an impeccably designed metallic red bulletproof jacket by Magugu and scans the garment with her phone, using an app called Verisium. A screen loads with data about the garment, the materials used, where they were sourced and the hands that made it.
Developed for a collection Magugu entered for the LVMH Prize, each garment contains a microchip containing information so that the wearer can learn more about their purchase. The app is arguably the technological touch that placed Magugu head and shoulders above the other entrants and bagged him the award, won for the first time by an African designer.
The tech brings to life what is at the heart of the clothing. Magugu has said that his work is not only inspired by his mother, but also by the many strong, independent women who surrounded him while growing up in Kimberley.
His SS19 collection, African Studies, is a marriage of modern and traditional culture, comprising wrap-style draping from his Tswana background, traditional and contemporary silhouettes, and prints that celebrate the black female body that he created in collaboration with graphic artist Phathu Nembilwi.
The Basotho-inspired blankets you see in his SS20 collection Prosopography were re-imagined by Magugu, says Pringle-Kölsch. Prosopography was inspired by the Black Sash, a revolutionary group of women who fought for black people's rights and dignity during apartheid.
"The zebra mud dress was dyed using the mud used by sangomas. It's not so much like a tribal reference; you see that strong African woman. He's very academic and very political. He regards his brand as a sanctuary for women - to find good clothes and to find elements of modern South African," she says.
Magugu, who founded the annual fashion zine Faculty Press, dedicated to capturing key moments, ideas and thoughts from emerging voices engaging with contemporary South African landscape, has said that all his collections are named after university subjects. Prosopography is the study of people whose biography isn't well known, which led him to the Black Sash. Wearing black sashes, the group of women would stand outside cabinet ministers' offices and on public roads, using the power of shame to drive the message home.
Featured in the Zeitz Mocaa's retrospective, 21 Years: Making Histories with South African Fashion Week, alongside Black Coffee, Loxion Kulcha, Superella, Mantsho, Clive Rundle and Stoned Cherrie among others, Ephymol is regarded as an iconic fashion label.
Born and bred in Soweto, Ephymol's Ephraim Molingoane says Soweto was a cultural melting pot. His own cultural background is Sotho and Swati on his mother's side. "When I design, I look beyond my own Sotho and Swati heritage; and more into different semi-urban and rural-urban lifestyle cultures like your Mapantsula and Sophiatown movement."
His first showcase at South African Fashion Week was in 2007, a black-and-pink collection called Pink Panther, featuring Tsonga and Ndebele print.
"The culture of menswear has evolved over the years. And so have men and how they want to be seen. When men go out and perform such as indlamu, there's a certain sense of dress code that goes with it. They wear the doek, scarf and decorated gumboot in a specific way - they don't just wear it anyhow. Even as far back as Shaka's days the men would wear the shortest skirts. They want to look unique. Fashion comes from a long way," says Molingoane.
"Our South African heritage is not just about traditional culture; it's also about the rich and diverse cultural lifestyle we have created that you won't find anywhere else in the world. That's what's unique about our fashion," he says.
Says Van der Watt: "The best thing about South African fashion is that people are open to exploring new ideas; not only the designers but many of the consumers too."