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The New Guard of African Fashion

October 3, 2019

For centuries the manifold myths, traditions, art forms and decorative expressions of human history have provided a rich source of inspiration for creative communities the world over – be it Greek, Chinese, Indian, Native American, Iranian, Russian or Norse mythology. In fact, it could be argued that every civilization’s mythology or cultural expression was influenced in part by another culture. Of course, Africa is no exception.

The borrowing of myths across cultures in order to tell the stories that help us to make sense of the world, comes down to curiosity, a trait that makes us uniquely human. While modern times have seen the rapid globalization of an African aesthetic across everything from food to fashion, art, design, music and theatre; there have been all too many instances where ‘cultural appropriation’ has relegated certain ethnic communities into a pithy, one-dimensional Pan-African ‘look’ or misinterpreted a cultural tradition in a way that offends the creators. Not to mention robbing them of their livelihood and pride. And yet, it’s becoming apparent just how fast the tide is turning. In July this year, Louis Vuitton released a redesign Capucine handbag (first introduced by Nicolas Ghesquière in 2013) by none other than South African fashion designer Nicholas Hlobo. And then last month, one of my favorite fashion labels, the luxury South African knitwear brand Maxhosa, showed for the first time at New York Fashion Week – to critical acclaim.

I’ve long admired the genius of Xhosa designer Laduma Ngxokolo, whose luxury knitwear designs capture the vibrant energy, symbolism and aesthetic of the Xhosa culture. It’s hard to believe that it was just seven years ago that Laduma launched his first range, off the back of an academic thesis on the wardrobes of Xhosa initiates. Having himself gone through the traditional Xhosa custom where boys go to the bush to be initiated into manhood, he questioned why post-initiation dress code included knitwear with patterns from England and Scotland, such as Argyle, when there was a plethora of ‘Xhosa beadwork patterns, symbols and colors’, to choose from. His groundbreaking thesis spawned a series of designs so successful, that in a relatively short period of time, Maxhosa has achieved iconic status both at home and abroad. So much so, one of his cable knit sweaters was displayed as part of the Museum of Modern Art ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ exhibit last year, while his kaftans were chosen by actress Florence Kasumba for a pop-up at Bloomingdale’s to coincide with the launch of Disney’s The Lion King, not to mention celebrity endorsements from Beyonce, Alicia Keys and the like.

Hot on the heels of Maxhosa’s NYFW sensational show, came the announcement last month that South African fashion designer Thebe Magugu had won the prestigious LMVH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) prize, singling himself out from more than 1,700 applications, among them some of the globe’s most inspiring, emerging and established designers.

Magugu’s story is no less stratospheric. Although he only launched his label just three years ago, every one of his collections –Geology, Home Economics and Social Sciences explore issues around the land debate, gender identity, sexual violence and even corruption in the fashion industry. ‘Fashion can be a powerful vehicle for change and a way to talk about those issues that don’t get much airtime,’ he explains.  ‘I always try to have an aesthetic as well as a backstory that alludes to something that’s on my mind,’ he adds. A case in point, is his Girl Seeks Girl dress, that formed part of his Home Economics collection. He describes it as an angel-sleeve scuba dress with the print evoking a woman crying into the arms of another woman. ‘It was my suggestion that in the harsh conditions women find themselves in – in South Africa particularly – it is important that they stick together and protect one another.’

But by all accounts it was his African Studies (Spring/ Summer 2019) collection, presented at SA Fashion Week earlier this year that earned him an entry into the coveted LMVH competition. For this collection is very much an embodiment of Thebe’s love for his culture and his country, merging as it does, prints and motifs from his culture together with tailored modern silhouettes. His feminine, contemporary collection that so impressed the judges included a pleated white and red dress that utilized a specific African mud instead of a print. He achieved this by adding an agent to the mix that ensures it doesn’t fade when you wash it.

That Thebe is the first designer from the continent to ever win the award is hugely significant. A personal first for him was that in order to collect his award he traveled to Paris for the first time to receive his prize of €300,000 and a year-long mentorship program. For a designer who has, up until now, worked from home on all his collections, it offers the opportunity for massive change. And yet, he’s adamant that he will stay put in Africa. ‘There is so much talent in South Africa and with a massive youth unemployment rate, at around 30 percent, I want to do my part.’

As Noni Gasa, a South African fashion and media personality said in a recent interview with The Sowetan: ‘It’s a new dawn for African fashion, we certainly feel that something exciting is happening, you can feel it in the air. There’s a deeply held optimism about where we’re going and our potential to play in the global mainstream.’ So much so, Noni has just announced a new bursary in her name, in partnership with the Design Academy of Fashion in South Africa, that will sponsor a student to the tune or R460 000 (+/-$30,000). As the only Southern African school selected as a feeder for Gucci, it means that every year one third-year student stands a chance to take part in a year-long internship at the Palazzo Alberini in Rome, Italy, the design headquarters for GUCCI.

If you would like more information about how you can contribute towards growing the South African fashion industry through donating a scholarship, or if you’d like us to create a fashion itinerary for you as part of your next luxury African safari experience, email welcome@roarafrica.com for more information.

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