Ask a fashion designer what inspired a collection and, very often, the answer is something personal. Something that begins with the words “I felt” or “I dreamed” or “I saw”. For Lukhanyo Mdingi, a collection begins with collaboration.
No, not in the capitalist sense of brands swapping logos and calling it a day, but in the creative sense: a meeting of minds to create something together. For his Fall/Winter 2021 collection, Mdingi worked alongside Philani, a South African non-profit organisation that supports vulnerable mothers, for their expertise in hand weaving. He also connected with Cabes Gie, an association of textile artisans based in Burkina Faso.
And when the Cape Town-based designer received the Karl Lagerfeld Prize for the clothes he made together with these craftspeople, he said, “I’ve always believed that the power of a collective is far greater than that of a singular and I think that this prize is testament to that.”
Through his clothes, what Mdingi ultimately builds is a community. His fashion brand, which he founded in 2015, may be named after him, but he speaks of it in the third person. He humbly calls it “the label” or uses the pronoun “us”.
His collaborations are ongoing conversations, relationships that he intends to nurture as his brand grows. That means that when he’s shortlisted for the 2021 LVMH Prize, whose judges panel included the likes of Dior’s Kim Jones and the late Virgil Abloh, Mdingi shares that honour with his collaborators. And when his label is selected as part of The Vanguard, an incubator program by luxury retailer Net-a-Porter, that spotlight is cast on both the designer and his creative community.
In the interview below, Mdingi shares with us an introduction to his label and the intentions that drive him as a designer.
When did you discover that you wanted to make clothes?
It had me at hello since the age of five, being a kid born in the ’90s and having been immersed with the Supermodel era of Naomi, Christy and Cindy – it was instant. The earliest memory was through the daytime soap opera, The Bold & The Beautiful. Aside from the risqué story lines, it was the spirit of fashion that was at the heart of Forrester Creations and Spectra Designs. Although it was fictional, it was a moment that cemented my love for the industry and the aspirations for being a designer.
Could you share more about the legacy of craft in South Africa?
The craft lies within the hands and the spirit of those that practice it. I believe that the Lukhanyo Mdingi label has been a vessel for craft to be seen and celebrated in the contemporary. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the presence of individuals that have an exceptional amount of finesse within their craft.
Whether it’s from the mothers of Philani that focus on hand weaving, or those that are within the communities of Burkina Faso, I’ve come to realise that there is a certain kind of honesty and sincerity that is woven within the fabric of what they do. This has also been extended to the social impact that has contributed to the benefit of their livelihoods and wellbeing. The idea is far beyond the physical but also choosing to penetrate those that need the work and for them to recognise that what they’re doing is extraordinary and is celebrated.
How did you establish a relationship with the local artisans you collaborate with? What made you want to work with them?
I want to move through purpose and service. For the longest time, design has been the catalyst in creating pieces that were based on dreams. However, as I have grown, I hope that design can be the vehicle to inform change, build bridges and extend communities. I believe in the human spirit, and I believe that we are more alike than different. The business of fashion is one that is extremely interdependent, and one is reliant on another to make what you envision come to fruition – I’ve always recognised this. It’s through a network of friends that have steadily allowed me to connect with new ones, opening the doors and passing on the baton.
Working with the mothers from Philani, the community of Cabes Gie from Burkina Faso, textile designer Stephanie Bentum and the extraordinary women from CGB and Adele’s Mohair has enriched my life as a designer, entrepreneur and human in ways that are unimaginable. It is because of the contribution of these individuals that has made Lukhanyo Mdingi what is it today.
Besides the artisans you work with, why did you choose to be based in Cape Town? Do you see it becoming a key fashion city in the future?
I already identify my city, my country and continent as whole a fashion capital. One must not be pertained to thinking fashion is solely about Fashion Weeks, shows, clothes… It’s a system where an abundant amount of people are part of. Africa is golden and every corner of it is a key ‘fashion’ capital.
The Coutts Collection, for Fall/Winter 2021, is a tribute to a friend you lost. How did you honour him in your designs?
The Coutts Collection was in honour of my dear fried Nicholas Coutts. Through the blessing of parents Lindsay and Mick, as well as sister Emma, his family allowed the label to celebrate his legacy and memory through our shared medium of design. Nicholas was known for his signature hand woven pieces – they, as he was, were iconic. He left us far too soon and honouring him this way was the only way that I knew how.
Heavily textured scarfs are a highlight of the collection. What do they represent?
The hand-woven scarves and tapestries not only represent Nick but also the mothers from Philani who were part of the development of these items. I believe that the human hands have an unparalleled amount of honesty when creating something, especially when done with sincerity and consideration – they represent exactly these sentiments.
Your podcast, The Premise, is mesmerising. It combines soulful music with meditative musings on human values and emotions. What made you approach doing a podcast in this way?
In the beginning of 2020, myself and one of my closest confidants, Elizabeth Thebus, practised weekly journals that looked into topics that were part of the human experience. It was a way of us finding our own truths and giving room for each other to face it, challenge and celebrate them with via our weekly Sunday sessions. It was an incredibly revealing experience and highlighted how nuanced our experiences were aside from our different backgrounds. I knew that I wanted to extend this within the cosmology of the Lukhanyo Mdingi label, another paradigm of bringing in community far beyond the making of clothes.
Soulful and human: you’ve used these words to describe your clothes. Do you find it challenging to maintain that as your business grows?
No. I’m pressed against the mark of my intentions – that has never waned.
What are some opportunities that came with joining NET-A-PORTER’s Vanguard?
It has allowed us to make the marriage between business and design work in away where there is support. To be under the aegis of the Net-A-Porter Vanguard Programme is far beyond the investment of the collections but also using their networks as a means to make a positive contribution to the growth of our ever-evolving label.
Finally, how will you be spending your holidays?
With family and some much-missed hand-weaving.
Shop our favourites from Lukhanyo Mdingi
All photos credited to Lukhanyo Mdingi, courtesy of Net-a-Porter.
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore