Award-winning Mmuso Maxwell on dressing Beyoncé, working with Naomi
Local designer duo discusses sustainability, consistency and visibility
Mmuso Maxwell, a fashion brand based in Johannesburg, was founded six years ago by Maxwell Boko and Mmuso Potsane. The combination of their names in the brand’s name represents their emerging aesthetics, interests, and design, finding power and amplification in their collaboration.
The duo creates highly tailored womenswear that is inspired by the juxtaposition of contemporary culture and African heritage, merged to complement the modern woman. Mmuso Maxwell has become synonymous with carefully considered and sustainable design that exudes value and quality, and as such, has recently been awarded the prestigious Woolmark Karl Lagerfeld Prize for Innovation.
The Woolmark Prize, funded by the marketing department of Australia’s more than 60,000 Merino wool growers, awards life-changing cash prizes and has been attributed with cultivating some of fashion’sbest-known designers. As a testament to the competition being one of the industry’s most defining awards, previous winners include Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld.
British Vogue editor-in-chief and the Vogue European editorial director Edward Enninful were joined on the judging panel by Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci, Hermès’ Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski and Tilting the Lens founder Sinéad Burke. London-based designer Saul Nash was announced as the winner of the International Woolmark Prize, winning A$200,000 (R2.2m) for a luxury capsule of fluid-sportswear.
Mmuso Maxwell won the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation and were awarded A$100,000. Their Ukholo — Faith collection explored the theatrics of deceit in South African churches, using locally-sourced merino wool for an Autumn/Winter collection. Some 200 applicants from around the world were tasked with highlighting transparency in their supply chains.
From meeting as interns under the fashion icon David Tlale, Boko and Potsane have moved from strength to strength. From dressing Beyoncé to reaching international acclaim, the sky is the limit. The modest duo, assisted by just one seamstress, have created a world-renowned and now internationally acclaimed brand through raw talent and an aspirational spirit.
I spoke to the dynamic duo and was instantly enamoured with their self-effacing charm, passion and encompassing enthusiasm. Their brand has recently been propelled to a global stage, the combination of their personalities and skills are going to hold them in good stead as they join the likes of Thebe Magugu, Lukhanyo Mdingi and Rich Mnisi in trailblazing local fashion.
What is your practice?
Maxwell: We met through an internship programme with David Tlale. We were both aspiring designers — aspiring to own separate brands. However, we had similar aesthetics and we decided we might as well have one strong brand as opposed to two similar ones. After the internship, we decided to form Mmuso Maxwell.
Mmuso: We make ready-to-wear womenswear, informed by our African heritage and mixed with contemporary culture.
Tell me about you experience with Woolmark?
Maxwell: We applied almost a year ago, and at the time when we applied we had just assumed we would probably make it in two or three years from now. The Woolmark competition, even though it’s for emerging designers, it’s for slightly more established designers, so we just applied and then we forgot about it. When they called me, it was this odd number, which was a UK number, her name was Lucy and she told me that we had made it for Woolmark. I screamed in disbelief and our seamstress thought something terrible had happening because of the way I was screaming. I was like ‘no, something unbelievable just happened!’
We were one of the finalists for the prize and at face value, you think, ‘oh my goodness, this is amazing,’ but in actual fact the programme was very, very intense, but in the best way possible for your brand to grow. Our intention was to source almost everything locally and to work on this collection was quite difficult to be honest, there are not a lot of fabrics, different types of wool, to source locally.
We wanted to create items that were local — from fibre to finished product. It was very difficult, any other local designers know how difficult it is to source fabrics locally. When they are handmade locally, it pushes the price up, so you can’t make everything like that. The process really pushed us.
One of the finalists said at our first meeting, when I was complaining about our lack of resources and whatnot, that “having it all is not always the best tool to be creative, your circumstances can make you creative.” I always kept that in the back of my mind, and I told him that when I met him, and he didn’t even remember saying that!
We pushed ourselves to make sure that we produce everything locally. And somehow when we went to present the collection, the craziest thing was how people thought that we were doing such a wide range of different types of using wool, when in actual fact, it was just hand woven and knitted.
Mmuso: The presentation was quite daunting because you get to meet all these people that you see from social media, these big fashion players. When we met them and the jury it was even more daunting, but then the more we talked about our collection to them, the easier it got as time went by. We were able to portray what we stand for and what we do. I think it was a great experience because we got to learn so much from the process, we grew so much.
What inspired your Ukholo collection?
Maxwell: Even before Woolmark, we were working on a collection where we were looking into the phenomenon of fake pastors, who are scamming our people because of their circumstances. They know that these people are desperate, and they promise them these things, that they must pay for in exchange for success or whatever the case may be.
These pastors know very well that those people are desperate and that their circumstances are what would make them believe that someone can actually pray for you and you achieve your dreams. We wanted to dive into that and their actions, what they use to fool their followers.
One of our designs, you can’t necessarily see it unless you see it in person, we used swing-tag mock-ups to play into this idea of how everything nowadays is for sale. It was the one look that was not sourced locally, we used fabric imported from Japan.
Basically, these pastors sell hope, they sell healing, they sell prosperity, and another element of the coat is a little cross hidden inside of it, which you can only see when you come up close to the garment.From a distance, you can only see the circle, but when you are up close, you can take a look behind the smoke and mirrors.
Mmuso came up with it two years ago, and we never really delved into it before because it’s such a touchy subject.
Mmuso: We didn’t really want it to come out as costume-y, because sometimes when you do conceptual collections, they have this costume feel to it. We didn’t want to take that direction, we still wanted to create something that was modern and has a sense of fashion, but in way can also tell a story. That balance we tried to navigate, but I think we did that very well.
What are your next steps?
Maxwell: We were talking with someone recently and they mentioned just after Lukhanyo [Mdingi] had won the LVMH prize, he had said that it had made everything clearer for him in terms of vision, what he wanted to do and what is purpose was. We couldn’t put that feeling into words before, but when he said that I was like, ‘yes, that's exactly how we feel’.
We are working on possibly presenting our Spring/Summer23 collection, either in Milan or Paris, but also having a showroom. Our focal point is to have a showroom somewhere, either in Paris or Milan because the [fashion] ecosystems are quite closed. You have to go there to present your collection, to get buyers because no buyers are going to fly down to us and then go back to Milan, or Paris. We’re definitely going to continue working with local artisans that we were working with long before Woolmark. We’ve always had an affinity for natural fabrics since the beginning.
What have been the highlights so far on the journey of Mmuso Maxwell?
Mmuso: I think it has to be obviously the Woolmark prize. We also did ARISE where we came third place, a 30-under-30 competition for African designers. Noami [Campbell] also walked the catwalk in our suit!
Maxwell: Our brand has basically given me access to things that are dear to me, but are not related to fashion. So, for example, when we were doing that ARISE competition, Usher performed for a full hour. I am a huge fan, and for me that always stands out. We also dressed Beyoncé and were able to get tickets for Global Citizen and watching her live was amazing, I love her.
Also getting someone like Naomi to work in your shows was phenomenal. In Woolmark, I think the highlight for me was meeting the other finalists. We had a small get together a day before the presentation. Meeting other young creatives with entirely different perspectives and with their own struggles, not exactly the same as yours, but also knowing things that you don’t know.
What advice would you give to your younger selves?
Maxwell: I would tell myself to believe in your dreams because I’ve always wanted to do fashion since I was young. For me it has always been that thing “Oh, will I be able to make it?’ The advice would be to be persistent and always believe in your dreams, to always move forward, to do what you have always wanted to do.
Mmuso: I would tell my younger self to keep at it, because I have always been a dreamer. I grew up in a very hard rural area in the Eastern Cape, we only got electricity in 2008. I always knew that I would be in fashion, I remember in school that I used to send Facebook messages to like Thula Sindi to intern and stuff. I always knew as a kid that I would make this happen, one way or another.
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