Much like beadwork, knitted patterns act as adornments. Though they don't carry a spiritual message of their own, designer Laduma Ngxokolo's intricate geometric designs serve as a reminder of his Xhosa heritage. And for the first time this past month, Ngxokolo's designs under label MaXhosa by Laduma were put on display at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Johannesburg.
It was a fête for the eyes: 27 striking pieces comprising knee-length skirts, floating ponchos, long cardigans, capes and fitted dresses, in flying geometric patterns, Xhosa-inspired motifs and flowing explorations that resemble mountains – all made from locally sourced mohair and merino wool.
For the 28-year-old Port Elizabeth born designer, who has recently relocated to Cape Town, fashion is a family affair. He would watch his mother Lindelwa, who had her own design studio in Port Elizabeth during the eighties, create women's knitwear for special clients in New Brighton. She taught Ngxokolo and his siblings beadwork, crochet and hand knitting.
His late grandfather, Mike Ngxokolo, who seemed to have a flair for fashion too, used to make his own bell-bottom pants in the Sixties. Ngxokolo's sister, Somikazi, is a fashion designer in her own right.
The standing ovation his collection received at Fashion Week was a testament to the support and love garnered by his work – from the first blue crew neck Ngxokolo designed for a high school event with the help of his mother, to the collection he presented at the Jo'burg fashion week.
Ngxokolo is now developing a summer collection and looking into designing woven garments and wallpaper. He says the opportunities are endless but "producing locally is not a smooth affair, and working with limited funds creates challenges".
How was your first time at the Jo'burg fashion week?
It was fantastic. I felt the pressure to impress the people who attended the show. The response from the audience was overwhelming; it was a truly unforgettable experience and something I will always cherish.
Did you have a specific theme in mind?
My theme for the latest collection was "Buyel'mbo". It's a Xhosa word that often springs up from Xhosa poetry; it is an idea that encourages Xhosa people to look back to their roots and celebrate their heritage. Using this idea, I tried to imagine and interpret how Xhosa people would have dressed if the Xhosa territory had never been colonised or influenced by Western style.
What was the outcome of Fashion Week for you?
I met with other designers and have been in contact with buyers in Johannesburg who attended the show; I got to experience how [excited] the Jo'burg market is about my collection.
You initially designed garments for new Xhosa initiates – amakrwala. Do you still provide knits for young men performing this ritual?
I still do get a few parents who buy knits for their children; the demand is growing and a lot of them are also eager to purchase after they have been through the process.
You have said: "[MaXhosa] is a philosophy of black consciousness."
MaXhosa means the Xhosa people. I decided to label my knitwear "Ma-Xhosa by Laduma" because I wanted to showcase the beauty of the Xhosa people, as I see it. It is more an ideology of black consciousness, focused on the beauty of the Xhosa culture, which is often undervalued by African natives as [it is] with many other African indigenous cultures.
How does the Xhosa heritage influence or inspire your designs?
I get my design inspiration from traditional Xhosa beadwork, but also [from] more profound elements within the Xhosa heritage.
Who is the typical MaXhosa customer?
Extravagant, loves art, is fashion- and design-conscious and appreciates beautiful things.
What is the most popular item?
The most popular design is from my 2012 initial collection – a pattern I named umngqusho. It was nominated for the Design Indaba Most Beautiful Object in South Africa. It's the most flamboyant and unique design from my collection; it also has a unisex appeal.
Do you aim to keep the MaXhosa brand ethical and eco-conscious?
I feel that it is a responsibility more than a choice. Considering the future of design, ethics and eco-consciousness will be as important as aesthetics and function.
You have quoted the Italian brand Missoni as one of your inspirations. Can you explain?
I like their "state of the art" aesthetic, how they remain true to their Italian heritage and the quality of their work. [I also like] Henrik Vibskov and Kenzo.
Stockists: Egality in Parkhurst, Johannesburg; Merchants on Long, Cape Town; Oscar & Olive, Namibia; Agnes & Lola, London and iTU Espace Design, France