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Monday, August 27, 2012

Q&A: Laduma Ngxokolo talks MaXhosa Knitwear

MaXhosa Knitwear by Astrid Arndt


Every now and then something great is born. Something wonderful and new is discovered and all of a sudden, there’s a breath of fresh design making its way to consumers. MaXhosa Knitwear, is just such discovery. Possibly seen as an alternative creative solution to the high price of consumption and its effects on cultural rituals and their longevity, one can see Laduma Ngxokolo’s design solution to a cultural and economic challenge as the work of someone who sees the forward-thinking upliftment opportunities design presents when you ask the world, “what can I do for you?” We take a moment to chat to the young creative and find out just a little bit more about the creative director behind a brand taking South Africa and the Xhosa culture to new horizons.

What is a textile and fashion entrepreneur? What do they do?
LN: Textile and fashion entrepreneurs guide the development process of clothes or textiles from fibre to finished products. My design/production process starts from fibre to assembled knitted garments, so that is why I prefer to establish myself as new generation textile and fashion entrepreneur.    

As a textile and fashion entrepreneur, as you like to be known, why choose mohair and wool as the immediate medium to showcase your talents over, let’s say, silk or leather?
LN: Firstly because mohair and wool are one of the commodities we possess in South Africa, being the biggest mohair producer in the world and Port Elizabeth being the trade capital of those commodities. Above all that, they are special fibres that have good properties like: longevity, good colour fastening and are breathable, which make them perfect for knitwear.

MaXhosa Knitwear by Astrid Arndt

MaXhosa Knitwear by Astrid Arndt

In almost all articles of you, there is a prominent mention of your late mother, Lindelwa Ngxokolo, who was also a knitwear designer herself. What is it about the work she created with her hands that resonated with you enough to encourage the decision for you to follow in her handprints?
LN: I consider myself as an extension of her philosophy, Xhosa people would say in this instance ‘ndiy’ncance ebeleni’ (I was breast fed what I do from her).  I grew up helping her a lot with her handcraft work like crotchet, hand machine knitting and beadwork. My mother was a great patriot of Xhosa anthropology, she used to read anthropology books to us as bed time stories. So she has been a big influence in my career path.

Your sister, Somikazi Ngxokolo, received a fashion design award herself. How has she influenced your work ethic and helped you get to where you are now?
LN: My sister together with my mother where fashion enthusiasts way before I was attracted to fashion. They bought a lot of fashion books, so we predominantly spoke about fashion at home. I have always been interested in the fine art of fabrics since I started doing textile design at Lawson Brown High School in PE and my sister has always been there to assist me to take my work from fabric to fashion after I play around with the surface design.

Your speciality submission to the South African Society of Dyers and Colourists was what started this incredible wheel turning in a dynamic pace. Your submission was titled, “The Colourful World of the Xhosa Culture”. Talk us through this work and the process of putting it together.
LN: The criteria of the competition was to demonstrate an imaginative, creative and original use of colour in either fashion, while considering sustainability and environmental impact of the product. I entered the competition as part of my BTech project at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2010. The brief came at a time where I was trying to find my BTech topic and which ended become ‘Xhosa-inspired Knitwear for Amakrwala’, fortunately at that time there was an exhibition displayed by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in PE for the 2010 soccer world cup. So I did some research about the profound history of traditional Xhosa bead and found motifs, colours and techniques and implemented to the judges how my interpretation of tradition Xhosa aesthetics can be turned into knitwear classics and how they can be made using material that is at my disposal while considering the environmental impact they could have.  

What do you believe was or were the key factor(s) in your submission that attributed to you being awarded the international accolade?
LN: It was the background story behind my project, I think it was rather based on my own voice instead of general context. I re-interpreted traditional Xhosa motifs into a modern interpretation to suit the Xhosa initiates market that is being influenced by modern trends and lastly my implementation of using South African merino wool and mohair to manufacture my knitwear in order to create sustainable jobs. 

What were the major technical challenges that you’ve had to overcome to successfully take your idea from seed to wearable knitwear?
LN: I couldn’t access any technology support in the country that I could use to make my vision a reality, so I had to think of ways of bending hand machine-knitting techniques that where at my disposal, so that they could work for my design style.

Just how far-reaching is the dream or vision for MaXhosa Knitwear?
LN: Although the footprint of the brand is knitwear there is a lot quite a number of products that I am aiming to branch into, at least the brand has a handwriting that recognizable by. My vision is to sustained my brand for the next decades so that it serves as a reminder to next generation of where we come from as people, at the same time I want my brand to be relevant to the social development of the community it emerged from.

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

The jet setter that you are, in 2011, you along with Stiaan Louw, showcased your designs at London Fashion Week. Can we expect a similar showcase on our shores any time soon?
LN: Yes sure, either late this year or early next year.

What is your opinion on menswear in South Africa?
LN: I think most of it is a range of styles that are filtered down from overseas mainstream fashion, but I think there is a huge potential to grow indigenous distinctive styles locally, there are a few designers in SA that you can tell that they design from a blank page.

Do you see potential for a knitwear market to emerge?
LN: The overseas market already has a big luxe knitwear market, we haven’t got a significant one yet locally, so I think there is still a potential to grow one in South Africa.

Is there opportunity/potential to develop talent to cater to the industry of menswear from youth in the less urbanised provinces such as Eastern Cape and maybe Mpumalanga, for example?
LN: Yes there is, I think that there is a potential of getting deep-rooted distinctive craftsmen and designers, we’ve seen that from musicians that come from the Eastern Cape.

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

What kind of influence do you see MaXhosa Knitwear having on menswear in South Africa?
LN: I vision MaXhosa Knitwear as a footprint that will set a clothing range that will dress South African men from head to toe in the future. I would like my work to be appreciated for its aesthetics, quality patronage and rather them feeling obligated to wear them because they are proudly South African. 

When you qualify and finally become a fully-fledged textile and Fashion Entrepreneur, what kind of change or influence would you like to see yourself become?
LN: I would like to contribute in economic growth in the South African fashion and textile industry. Above all that I would like to change the mindset that indigenous African fashion cannot make a significant influence in the mainstream fashion industry, and most importantly, preserve African heritage cultures for the coming generation

World of design VS Design for the world. Which is your viewpoint and why?
LN: Design for the world is my viewpoint, I believe that design should be meticulously developed or modified to suite the challenges of the world.

Do you think if enough young entrepreneurs, such as yourself, band together and tackle socio-economic challenges creatively, we could see visible results, like maybe the rise of local mohair and wool mills?
LN: Yes definitely. Given the support by the government we can tackle socio-economic problems by creating sustainable jobs, however, I think that should be done in an ethical way to make sure we don’t come back to the situation that is being faced by SA fashion and textile industry.

MaXhosa Knitwear at London Fashion Week / Image by SDR Photo

Who do you consider to be a South Africa renaissance man?
LN: I do consider myself so because I live in a new South African spirit that is influenced by modern times that gives me freedom to express what I feel. On the other hand as I move forward into the future I go back to the past and collect the pieces that define me as an individual so that I can move comfortably into the future so that I know where I come from.

What can we look forward to next from MaXhosa Knitwear?
LN: A new collection will come either late this year or early next year. However my aim is to position MaXhosa Knitwear as a heritage brand that can survive decades.

MaXhosa Knitwear photographed by Ross Adami

What’s next for Laduma Ngxokolo?
LN: I am currently working on collaborations with local home textile developers on products such as blankets and rugs, basically trying to extend into lifestyle products.  

Whatever the future holds for Laduma and his MaXhosa brand, one can be sure it will involve plenty of original thought and design and insights into creating opportunities for fellow South Africans. With a mind so worldly at such a young age, it’s evident that he works from a place that seeks to help and develop those around him as he grows and nurtures his own personal dreams. We can only keep a good eye on his, support the brand as it progresses and continue to believe that the young talent being produced in South Africa will really make a difference soon enough.

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