Creativity can be a means of communicating ideas, cultures and heritage. It can help connect people from across the globe and, certainly, it can take you many places. For award-winning South African textile and knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo, creativity has taken him and his innovative, homegrown knitwear brand MaXhosa across the globe. Most recently, it’s seen him partner up with Bombay Sapphire gin and being announced as the feature designer for 100% Design South Africa, writes Dave Mann.
It’s a busy afternoon in Johannesburg’s Village Deep, a bustling area populated with furniture stores, bag factories, auto mechanics, and artisans alike. Inside MaXhosa’s joint factory, showroom, and office space, Laduma Ngxokolo begins to recall his early days as a burgeoning designer in the Eastern Cape.
‘I always wanted to create something,’ he explains. ‘Back in my high school years, when I was in grade 8, I started doing textile design and I’ve been fascinated with patterns ever since.’
It was also his late mother, a knitwear designer herself, who helped further Ngxokolo’s passion by teaching him how to hand-machine knit at the age of 16, and a few years later he took up a BTech degree in Textile Design Technology at Nelson Mandela University. It was there that Ngxokolo began to work with natural resources like mohair and wool, and merge them with his own knowledge of beadwork and design and it was in his final years of study that MaXhosa, now a global brand, began to take shape.
‘The thesis was essentially a question of how Xhosa initiates could be dressed in traditional Xhosa-inspired knitwear. The types of clothes they’ve been wearing for decades, they’ve been wearing Westernised clothes. I wanted to change that and come up with something that is modern and contemporary and speaks our language but also fits into our needs as a black youth that is evolving culture,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to create an African luxury brand that speaks a global language.’
Today, MaXhosa is stocked in South Africa, America and France, and is available to a global audience through its online portals. Ngxokolo explains that, while local audiences have a more personal and nostalgic connection to the brand, international audiences are starting to see beyond the beauty of the garments and towards the heritage of the brand and the culture itself. ‘Fashion can be educational. You explain the story behind a garment and they become more curious about the African anthropology, which is not too well known throughout the world, but I think fashion design is a way of spreading it,’ he says. ‘The fact that someone can easily purchase our product from our distributors overseas or through our online store or our social media makes it an experience that I am sharing with them. Things are starting to become a bit boring out there and people are looking for more ways to experience fashion.’
Ngxokolo and MaXhosa’s partnership with Bombay Sapphire is essentially a collaboration between two like-minded brands, explains Ngxokolo.
‘Bombay Sapphire is a UK heritage brand and MaXhosa is a South African heritage brand and we want to do an exchange of culture, pair up with a brand that is global and create an experience. The campaign is well on time with our brand evolution,’ explains Ngxokolo. ‘Brand experiences are becoming a bigger part of the whole brand. People are looking for a part of the experience. People are looking for things that are personified, that are tailor-made.’
Experiences and activations that Ngxokolo and Bombay Sapphire have lined up include the launch of the MaXhosa AFI collection, coinciding with the announcement of a bespoke service seeing longstanding customers of the MaXhosa brand designing their own garments, selecting their designs and colours. Ngxokolo will also be designing a custom dress in line with the Stir Creativity campaign, and will offer customers a tour of the MaXhosa factory followed by bespoke Bombay Sapphire cocktails, which guests are encouraged to add their own creativity to by adding their own colour and flavour.
The 2019 instalment of 100% Design South Africa is set to take place from 7 to 11 August 2019, alongside Decorex Joburg at the Gallagher Convention Centre. A sterling line-up of rising talent will be showcased alongside established industry stalwarts.
The show features the darlings of the local design world, with Ngxokolo headlining this year’s lineup as Feature Designer for 2019.
‘We invited Laduma to take part as this year’s Feature Designer for a number of reasons. His strong crossover capability from fashion to home makes him incredibly versatile. And his designs draw on personal heritage and a sense of culture, which we feel is an important narrative to champion,’ says Laurence Brick, creative director of Platform Creative, curators of 100% Design South Africa. ‘Additionally, he has an ability to interpret tradition in a very contemporary way, which makes him really exciting as a designer.’
The much-lauded multifaceted designer has branched out from the iconic graphic garments that have cemented him as a star on the local fashion scene, into equally dynamic homeware. For 100% Design South Africa 2019, he will be presenting his collection of rugs, cushions and throws, as well as his new trade friendly offering of upholstery, wallpaper and curtaining, along with a few surprises.
In addition to an exciting new product range, he brings a fresh viewpoint. ‘I want to add something to the show that may not have been seen before. The idea is to bring an African utopian feel with my designs – shake people’s preconceptions. My aim is to offer a new way of living within our surroundings as a new generation of Africans.’
As with his signature fashion ranges that recast traditional visual language in a more contemporary light, Ngxokolo’s homeware is a tribute to the richness of South African culture, and the show is perfectly placed to showcase this. ‘I think 100% Design South Africa is curating a new aesthetic for a modern homeowner who wants to explore a living space that celebrates and acknowledges South Africa and Africa in general,’ he comments.
For Ngxokolo, looking towards a more sustainable future is crucial to the work that he does through the MaXhosa brand. With the Eastern Cape creating exquisite mohair, Ngxokolo is a firm believer in supporting and working with local industries, exclusively.
‘Unemployment in SA is in a very problematic state. Given the minerals that we have and the resources that we have locally, I always feel like we’re not doing full justice to what we have,’ he explains. ‘I also feel that it is very important to make sustainable choices when it comes to materials as climate change is constantly worsening. Our responsibilities as designers are not confined to designing, we have to watch the environment as well and preserve our own heritage.’
As such, not a stitch is wasted in the MaXhosa factory and everything is handled with care and authenticity. Processed garments or dyed fabrics that don’t make the cut are de-threaded and re-used, and absolutely everything is produced in-house, from the digital rendering of the designs to the handmade beadwork. It might seem rare, these days, to come across a brand that dedicates so much of its time to crafting a tailor-made product and experience for its customers, but for Ngxokolo, it’s both a return to craftsmanship and a move towards the future of fashion.
Considering Ngxokolo’s penchant for innovation, creativity, and an enduring take on culture and heritage through his work, looking ahead, where will creativity take Ngxokolo and MaXhosa? When fashion and tech seamlessly merge and the future finally arrives, he’ll be ready.
‘I think a lot of things are evolving,’ says Ngxokolo. ‘The things that we never foresaw are becoming a reality. Who knows if beads will go into tech one day? I’m personally projecting that future. Even brands, now, are thinking in terms of experiences. People will be able to buy experiences off the shelves. I think that is the future of knitwear. Even looking at the way consumers can engage with brands now. I can connect directly with the consumer through social media. That’s not something people could do just a few years ago.’
When asked more about the future of fashion, he cites Credo Mutwa, referencing a line from the healer and writer, positing a time not too far away when, through the use of machines, we’ll all be printing our own clothes in our own homes.
‘Can you imagine that? Of course. It’s coming,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘People aren’t going to buy stuff from us anymore. They’re going to buy 3D printers and what they’re going to buy from us is a code of a specific design which they’ll be able to download and run through a printer. Malls will become obsolete. You’ll buy a code from an online store. That sounds like the craziest future to anticipate, but it will be a reality.’
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