Lukhanyo Mdingi weaves magic into his commemorative Coutts collection

The 2021 LVMH Prize semi-finalist has crafted a sartorial tribute to his close friend, the late fashion designer Nicholas Coutts, writes Jackie May

25 April 2021 - 00:00 By Jackie May
A look from Lukhanyo Mdingi's Coutts Collection, which pays tribute to the designer's close friend, the late Nicholas Coutts.
A look from Lukhanyo Mdingi's Coutts Collection, which pays tribute to the designer's close friend, the late Nicholas Coutts.
Image: Jesse Navarre Vos

Lukhanyo Mdingi's studio is on the third floor of a building on the east side of Cape Town's city centre. The street below is busy. Upstairs the designer has created a serene space.

This year's been a good one for Mdingi. He was recently selected as a semi-finalist for the prestigious international LVMH Prize 2021.

He is a mentor for the inaugural “True Fashion: Try on Green”, a French Institute of SA and Goethe Institut mentorship programme, and he is a recent graduate of the Ethical Fashion Initiative's (EFI) Accelerator for African Fashion Brands programme.

In February, he released the Coutts Collection.

The EFI's accelerator team describe his eponymous label as “an elegant, timeless design, one that embraces and uplifts artisanal craft, a beautiful echo in support of SA's communities and their unique heritage”.

When I arrive a few weeks ago to visit him, Mdingi is seated at a large, uncluttered desk. Behind him hangs a Jeanne Gaigher painting, the tones of which are mirrored in the colours of the garments on the rails placed against the studio walls. There are warm hues of browns and greens with pops of red, purple and blue. A pile of art books is neatly stacked on a slab of marble below the painting.

Opposite his desk is a pattern-cutting table. The table is empty now, but not too long ago, it was here that Mdingi handwove pieces for his Coutts Collection, a tribute to his close friend, the young South African designer Nicholas Coutts, who tragically lost his life at 27 in 2019.

He talks me through his garments, explaining the details that reflect Coutts's design and how he worked this into the collection. “Fashion design is the language we shared,” he says.

Coutts was known for his textured and colour-rich fabrics, often handwoven using an assortment of yarns.  In previous collections, Mdingi's colour and design have been quietly sophisticated, interrogating the textures of natural fibres. 

The EFI recognises that one of the ways Mdingi grounds his brand in his local context is through working with SA's mohair fibre and with textile felt designer Stephanie Bentum. By doing this, EFI comments, the sustainable, artisanal, handmade process comes to life through the hands of a dedicated artist.

The Coutts Collection maintains Mdingi's distinctive style — for instance there's a meticulously and beautifully tailored camel-coloured suit and a burnt orange felt jacket — while reflecting and celebrating his friend's use of colour and choice of artisanal practice. The nod to Coutts is in the textile designs and handwoven scarves.

Coutts's mother, Lindsay Coutts, gave Mdingi a loom and taught him how to use it. The results of this handweaving are textured scarves and embellished accessories used throughout the collection.

Besides these handwoven pieces, Mdingi has taken the patterns Coutts used for textile prints, some of which were abstractions of woven pieces, and used these to create his own textiles.

Mdingi and Coutts had been friends since their years as students at Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Design Academy of Fashion, respectively, and later they were not only friends but professional peers too. In their final years of studying, they were both finalists for the ELLE Rising Star Awards in 2013, which Coutts won.

A look from Lukhanyo Mdingi's Coutts Collection.
A look from Lukhanyo Mdingi's Coutts Collection.
Image: Jesse Navarre Vos
A look from Lukhanyo Mdingi's Coutts Collection.
A look from Lukhanyo Mdingi's Coutts Collection.
Image: Jesse Navarre Vos

“They were so young and passionate and had such clear visions about the future of their brands and the different directions these would take, but essentially they were young South African designers who faced the same hurdles and their friendship grew from there,” says Lindsay.

In 2016, the friends collaborated on a collection and early in 2019 they travelled together to the Tranoï fashion trade show in Paris. “There's nothing like collaborating on a range or overseas travel to get to know each other and to cement a friendship,” says Lindsay.

Mdingi approached the Coutts family in 2020 with the concept of the Coutts Collection. “We were delighted and it seemed a natural fit,” says Lindsay.

Mdingi also said that he wanted to learn to weave. Lindsay, who taught her son to weave when he wanted to create a unique textured interest for his graduate collection at Design Academy of Fashion, taught Mdingi to weave in one lesson. “He took to it so quickly!

Designer Lukhanyo Mdingi.
Designer Lukhanyo Mdingi.
Image: Jesse Navarre Vos

“Nick developed his own [weaving] techniques by exploring colours and textures,” says Lindsay. “He often used vibrant coloured and novelty yarns, metallic yarns juxtaposed with natural fibres to create a celebration of colour and texture when weaving his own fabrics.”

In their 2016 collaboration, the duo combined their mutual passion for texture and sustainable and artisanal practices, with Mdingi's tendency of sophisticated elegance and with what Leanne Tlhagoane calls Coutts's layered, “cosy luxury”. These themes are all present in the Coutts Collection.

So what does the family think of the collection? “The Coutts Collection is a great honour to our family and the memory of our son and brother. Lukhanyo has created a spectacular homage to Nick and given life again to his memory. We are grateful to Lukhanyo for incorporating Nick's vision into this collection and by teaming his signature pieces with bursts of sublime colour he has created a standout collection.”

Mdingi has become an important member of the Coutt's extended family. Lindsay says he is “constant, committed and dedicated. A loyal friend and a caring and sensitive individual who has become an important part of our extended family.”

It's these qualities that Mdingi applies to his craft. The EFI says that by embracing his deeply rooted heritage, he's giving artisanal craft a platform, one that speaks of communities and considered, handmade design and production.

Knowing that he only gives of his best, the EFI predicts a stellar future for the Lukhanyo Mdingi brand, a trajectory reflective of steady, solid, progressive growth and consolidation.