There are two decades of South African fashion that are always at the back my mind, the 90s and the noughties. I know that one of these days I will have to make the time to research them properly, to find out what happened to all the talent that seems to have disappeared since. The 90s introduced me to the likes of Marc & Michael, The Boys of Rosebank, Gideon and Marianne Fassler. Of course Marianne is very much an active, relevant and well-known South African success story. As for the noughties, I still remember the excitement and pride that the likes of Stoned Cherrie, Sun Goddess, Mantsho, Bongiwe Walaza and Craig Native inspired. While there’s still some activity from some of them and the occasional news item, relevant isn’t exactly a word I would use to describe them. I really do not mean that in a disrespectful way at all. Like I said above, I intend to dedicate myself to extensive research some time in the future. Some might even still be in operation away from the limelight
However, I want to understand why it seems that from decade to decade as we embrace the new and exciting, it seems we dump the old batch of designers. Is it the public’s fault? Is it the media? Do we just move to the next and no longer report on what might still be happening in other businesses? Is it the designers? Did they perhaps not keep innovating and capturing our imagination? Is it bad business decisions? After all, the likes of Marianne, Klûk CGDT, David Tlale, Thula Sindi and Black coffee seem to grow from strength to strength. What are they doing differently?
As of this current decade we are excited about the likes of Laduma Ngxokolo, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Rich Mnisi, Jenevieve Lyons, AKJP, Nicholas Coutts and Chu Suwannapha to name just a few. What of the next decade? Who will survive? Who will fade as we move on to the next one? Or are we finally at a stage where our designers can keep growing season after season? Admittedly, ours is an industry where there aren’t really financial backers to turn designers into major businesses. I’m not even going to go into the infrastructure challenges that our designers face. I also don’t think the market for local designers goes past a single digit percentage of the South African clothing market. The challenges our designers face cannot be underestimated.
As I walked into South African Menswear Week SS16/17, a platform which I think is by far the most exciting of the many we have, other questions arose in my head. Will we see growth and improvement in the designers’ ranges? Will we see better finishes? Will those who have captured our collective imagination in the previous couple of seasons continue to do so?
RICH MNISI X THEBE MAGUGU
Which brings me to the 18h00 – make that 18h45 – show on Friday, which featured a collabo between Rich Mnisi and Thebe Magugu, followed by Lukhanyo Mdingi’s collection. Here our imagination was captured, arrested and locked down proper. Thebe and Rich had announced their collaboration on social media saying, “When we started this collection, the nostalgia that undercuts the passing of time held our fascination as we started having a conversation around re-contextualization and how basic staples could be re-imagined, fashioned and even considered modern. The idea of recapturing all these memories in a re-imagined way made for a deeper conversation about modernity and how it’s always used as an antonym in relation to Africa, at least aesthetically. It made us start reading the work of fashion theorists who expand on the theory of ‘the west’ and ‘the rest’. Is it not funny how the antonym of words like Modernity, Science and Contemporary are Traditional, Mystic and Antiquated, which are often equated to us as Africans, not only aesthetically but as our way of life. With this in mind, we wanted to create a collection that merges all these ideas of Africanism, Modernity and Family History together with our own experiences and views of what it was like growing up in an African home.”
As I watched the collection I saw so many round-the-way characters that I recognized in the looks. But here they were stylized and made fashion. Thebe and Rich put some proper ‘respek on it’. Also, I’m living for that teacup print. What’s the tea boo? Whether or not the collection will be good for business only they will be able to tell us. Could they have been a bit more Spring/Summer? Yes. Could they have gone much more commercial and made pieces that they could sell easily? Sure. It might even have been a good business decision in the short-term. But I’d like to think they’re in it for the long game, that they’re building brand identities that will last and continue to deliver on the promise innovation season after season.
That brings us to Lukhanyo Mdingi, whose collection – as far as I’m concerned – was the absolute highlight of this menswear week. Here too our imagination was on lock down. I want to break it down and say it was because of this or that, the colours, the fabric, the pleating, the prints, the styling, the silhouettes. I can’t put my finger on it; perhaps it was the way all of these elements came together so harmoniously to present such incredible beauty. I didn’t even know that one of the prints had elements of our flag on it until I had a chat with Deon Redman the following day. But that is the point isn’t it, when something is amazing it should amaze you even if you don’t know all the little details behind it, and Lukhanyo Mdingi was amazing as fuck. Amazing in how he put together the range, amazing in how he continually innovates. And although it does not escape me that this is only the young designer’s third menswear week collection, I am still impressed by how much he manages to raise the bar on himself season after season.
Two days prior, on Wednesday evening on the opening night of Menswear week, we got to watch another highly anticipated show, Chulaap by Chu Suwannapha. In case you don’t know why Chu’s show is one of the most anticipated shows of menswear week, do yourself a favour, stop reading, click here for his first show and here for his second. They were both amazing. Chu’s signature is his talent with prints. He is absolutely brilliant at combining them. He has also been a magnificent stylist when it comes to presenting his shows
I had a chat with him the morning after his show and he told me that “the theme was Tribals Tropical. It’s the mixed messages of the south, from South America, South Pacific, South East Asia to South Africa. It’s tropical with the realism of tribes. I gave different characters to each of the models, from an African fairy, warrior to the chief of the tribe. The prints are more op art and graphic than palm trees or floral prints. I chose African paint strokes prints in blue and white to replace nautical stripes or African floor mat prints in brown and white to replace florals for an example. I collaborated with illustrator Camilla Perkins, The Blom Boy for the flowers, the beads and tassels by Rings and Things, African sunglasses by Textiles and Alchemy, as well as Zulu sandals by Ifele.”
I’m a huge fan of Blom Boy’s work; when it comes to floral concepts I haven’t come across a talent quite like Alwijn. If you’re not familiar with his work please check it here. However, in this case I found the embellishment combined with the face paint quite overpowering, and a tad distracting. I found far more appreciation for this range the following day, when I went through the pictures and started to look at each of the individual outfits and items, while mentally stripping them of their accoutrements. I fell in love with the knitwear, with the birds, the zebras, the crocodiles and the pixelated human faces. There is not one piece of knitwear I don’t want. I’m even more obsessed with the knitwear’s colour combination. The spring/summer palette I wished for I found loads of here.
I also enjoyed the scale of the prints, which were larger than the previous ones. I enjoyed the top to toe prints and the reduced print combination. While Chu’s signature style is clear and undeniable in the range, the choice of prints shows a willingness to play, to shift – ever so slightly – from his usual way with prints. Unlike his previous collection, where the ethnic prints (yes, I also find calling them that very lazy and problematic, but late at night and can’t think) were broken by the addition of camo and spots as well as the Basotho blanket design, this was a strictly ethnic print affair. Although this was effective, especially on the looser silhouettes that used a single print from head to toe, I missed the disruption added by the unexpected prints.
Over and above these collections, there were others that I loved and we will chat about them over the next day or two. A conversation about this menswear week would not be complete without mentioning Jenevieve Lyons, Nao Serati, Nicholas Coutts, Julia M’Poko, Dicker, Orange Culture, Merwe Mode, Tokyo James, Sol-Sol, 2Bop and Young and Lazy. However, the four designers we spoke about were possibly the most hyped of menswear week. With the exception of Thebe Magugu who is new to menswear week, they’ve also blown us away in the past. It would be a pity to see the same fate as that which befell our previously hyped designers from nineties and the noughties visited upon them.
None of us have the magic crystal ball to look into for the future of SA fashion, and knowing how difficult it can be for a South African designer to make it, to keep on innovating while sustaining a business, I am a little scared. At the same time, looking at their ranges, looking at the willingness to innovate, especially in the face of challenges so hardcore that hardly any investors are prepared to take the risk of investing in a South African designer, I am inspired and I am excited by the spirit that drives these designers. And I want so badly to be writing about their – and others’ – success stories at Spring/Summer 2026/27 South African Menswear Week.
by Malibongwe Tyilo
Images by Malibongwe Tyilo (Rich Mnisi x Thebe Magugu & Lukhanyo Mdingi)
Images of Chulaap show by Peet Mocke