The way I see it, right now you cannot speak of interesting South African designers, especially when it comes to menswear, without mentioning Rich Mnisi. If you try that shit around these parts we’ll laugh you straight off the ramp. We’d slap you off the ramp but we’re all about that #noviolence. It’s actually hard to believe that the 23 year old only established his brand last year, April 2014, having graduated at the end of 2013. His two ranges at SA Menswear Week have certainly made the fashion set sit up and take notice. His collaborations with some of our most interesting stylists and photographers have grabbed the attention of international culture sites. Of course, we here at Skattie have been picking up on what he’s been putting down for a minute now. Check here and here for our posts from his previous shows. This time around we paid him a visit at his garage-turned-studio in his Kyalami home.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m working on some stuff for clients and doing research for SA menswear week next year. I’ve actually pretty much designed it, but I’m in the refining process, and then we start producing it next month.
How many ranges have you put out so far?
I can’t say for sure. One of them was just me playing around, testing the waters. As for the ones that actually went on the ramp, there was my graduation collection (my demo) which went into AFI Fastrack, then my second Fastrack collection (my EP), and the SA Menswear Week collections in Feb & July, and then the Skip collection, so that comes to five.
Your brand has been become such a part of the local fashion landscape that it feels like you’ve been around for longer.
It’s the internet! Hahaha!
Also, a lot of hype has come your way as well over the past year. How has it been? How are you dealing with it?
I think I’m very blessed in the sense that I’ve been exposed to other young designers, and I’ve been very observant, so I don’t buy into the hype. I’ve never accepted all the demands that come with it, because really, I’m too young and I can’t live up to what a lot of people want. Even if I had the money to produce multiple collections, quality is something one needs to work on and improve over time. And bad quality is so bad for your brand. Someone could buy one badly made tee-shirt from a designer while they’re at the beginning of their career and the next thing that’s the message that spreads about that designer, and we all know how important word of mouth is. As a young designer I think it’s important to take one’s time and learn.
Are you developing some sort of structure, so you know how many collections you plan on creating each year.
I think the last year was tricky because I was in a competition as well. As a young designer I feel that it is important to take the opportunities that come my way, so I kinda did just that. There was a time in Feb this year when I was doing SAMW, Design Indaba, and AFI Next Generation, and all in one month. Even though the Design Indaba one was an exhibition with a mix of previous collections, it still had the same impact on me, because we were still working on designing the stand and making sure the collection was timeously prepared. All three of them were two weeks apart. So next year there’s definitely going to be more structure. We’ve created a timetable, and we’re doing three shows max. What sometimes makes things tricky is that I do both womenswear and menswear, so I end up having to separate work between what I do for Menswear Week and what I do for AFI’s Fashion Week. So we’re also thinking of possibly doing the womenswear show just as a lookbook/presentation, and no runway show, but we’re still chatting about that at this point.
Are you managing to get to a stage where you are fully producing your catwalk ranges for retail?
Well, I’ve structured the brand like this: the first two years we will focus primarily on branding and refining my aesthetic. I’ve seen this happen with many designers, where their graduate collection defines their aesthetic and that’s it. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to be able to change when I need to. I want to be able to understand myself and to understand my aesthetic and grow from that. Hence the first two years is about understanding myself and the brand, and where I want to take it, then after that I’ll focus on retail. Even though I have started doing the research it’s still hard to place the brand. You know like, overseas the stores are very curated whereas here it tends to be a mash-up of everything, which makes it very tricky. For example, an area like Parkhurst, which might be filled with housewives and their aesthetic, and then if I were to slot myself in there it wouldn’t make much sense. I don’t want to just throw myself in stores out of desperation, especially because most of them want to work on consignment. I think I’m too young to get myself into debt. That’s why right now all orders come straight to me and we make them here and deliver, and we’re going to work that way for another year, unless we find a well-curated space that buys.
Are these orders for private clients?
Yes they are… It’s very tough out here and I’ve seen it with a lot of young designers, like, the first few years are all amazing and everyone wants to know who you are, and they push you further than you can handle.
Ja, especially when you’re the shiny new toy in town.
Ja, you know, and it can really consume you, and you can end up producing all this stuff and put it out there all on consignment. So you’re producing with money that you don’t have and production is so expensive. You can end up doing all this work for little to no return. It can consume your brand as well. Especially if you’re going to an established retail space, and you don’t have a strong brand standpoint, you become whatever they are, and that can make it very tricky for you to build a solid name.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think we’re in a place where we’re looking for solutions that are suited to this country, if one chooses to operate here. We still have a lot of challenges that are unique to our market and industry.
I also think that our market is very unique and very intricate. My theory is that because we just got out of an oppressive system, in some way we’ve become very excessive. For me, Skhothanes are a reflection of all South Africans, because if it’s not the car you drive, it’s the food you eat or the places you go to. There’s a strong need to show off. You even see it at our funerals, our mothers will never leave the house to attend a funeral in a dress they wore last week. That’s why international brands like Zara and H&M can keep coming, because people want that designer brand feeling, they want international things. People will sacrifice so much, even if they have very little, in order to buy into an international brand. If Rich Mnisi comes in as this unknown local designer, whether he is doing what those overseas brands are doing or better, the market still can’t respond to it because they don’t relate to it as a brand. So that’s why I think part of the solution is for us to figure out branding first and refine it completely. Beyond quality and other issues, there’s also a lot of psychology behind selling. I’ve also realized from conversation with other designers that a lot of us undermine our consumer and we think they’re not ready for it, but they are. I just think there’s not enough branding, customers aren’t so attached to our local brands to think that it’s worth sacrificing an entire month’s salary for an item.
Are you saying that we tend to blame the consumer when maybe designers should be taking a bigger share of the blame?
I’ve also blamed the consumer quite a lot, but then you see things like when Zara brought in a whole suede collection, all 70s, and it looked quite forward but people just really bought into it. If you look at our parents for example, I’ve seen so many examples of them buying into something that one might think is so fashion forward and then when they slot it into the wardrobe it just blends in so well. So, people are ready for fashion or high fashion, whatever it is. Our responsibility is to create a brand, because it goes beyond raw talent, there’s a whole business and branding side we need to get better at.
Speaking of great branding exercises, I love the shoot you guys recently shot with photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman and stylist Gabrielle Kannemeyer. How did that come about?
Oh ja, the shoot for the Skip collection. It was a very organic process. I told them I wanted to do a shoot at my grandmother’s place, 70s style with real people. It was weird how it happened, Gabi was in town for a shoot for Nataal, and they were coming to source, so I was just telling them the whole story and they were like let’s do it next week, then we shot it. My grandmother was a bit shocked, because she was seeing all these men in women’s clothing, then she asked me if it was Guy Fawkes or Halloween, hehehehe. But it was so incredible because we knew what we wanted to say, and we did street casting and just ran with it.
Brilliant! Especially considering how well it worked out. What’s also great about things like that and the publicity that came from it is that it also shows that there are other avenues for designers to get themselves out there other than the traditional fashion weeks. Don’t get me wrong I love a good fashion week, but I love that you can drop a lookbook and actually get far more attention than you would showing at fashion week.
I actually watched this thing on Vogue today about the designer Jacquemus. When he started he dressed these models and they were all petitioning outside the Dior show in Paris and he got the most attention, French media just dropped in. The times are so different that it doesn’t completely depend on the runway show, you can us so many different mediums, and if the media is there for you then you’re lucky. It’s very interesting what a lot of young designers are doing.
Lastly, what’s the vibe for the new range?
More expensive! Hahahaha!
Perfect! Sometimes that’s all one needs to know.
Hahahaha! I mean it’s gonna be expensive production-wise and fabric-wise. We’re exploring.
Editorial images – Photographer: Kristin-Lee Moolman, Photographer’s Assistant: Aart Verrips, Styling – Gabrielle Kannemeyer, MUA: Renton Wade, MUA Assistant:Tsundukani Baloyi, Models: Wayne, Desire Marea of FAKA, Janet @ ICE and Aart @ Model Republic.
Catalogue images – Photographer: Paul Samuel, Producer: Kelly Fung, MUA: Kelly-Jean Gilbert/ Liezl Leach, Assistant: Siphesihle Zondo, Photographers Assistant: Siviwe James, Models: Luke van der Burg, William Nkuna, Gladys Brown, Tommie.
Interview and Featured Image of Rich Mnisi by Malibongwe Tyilo