The 23 year-old designer and Elle Design Competition finalist Lukhanyo Mdingi took the breath out of virtual fashion media when he recently presented the lookbook for his A/W 2015 collection Taintless, a masterly exercise in forward-looking, minimalist menswear in shades of deep and dark blue. As he launches his eponymous label, we speak to the menswear visionaire about the state of the young fashion scene in South Africa, the importance of industry support and how international exposure is exactly what is needed.
Lukhanyo Mdingi grew up in the small coastal town of East London in South Africa. In 2011 he relocated to Cape Town to pursue a degree in Fashion at the city’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology. A post-graduate year followed, where he graduated as the only student from Fashion Design. Lukhanyo loves mixing theoretical and practical approaches to fashion, and his motivation for doing it in the first place is pretty simple: ”It makes me happy, it’s instant and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he explains over a broken Skype connection between Cape Town and London. ”I want to use fashion as a means to contribute to something much bigger and far beyond clothes.”
Lukhanyo represents a previously unseen type of menswear in South Africa, a country that according to him has a limited appreciation for male fashion. After having presented two complete womenswear collections after university (leading him to be a finalist at the ELLE Rising Star Design Award 2013), he began feeling naturally attracted to working menswear, and, more politically, felt a strong desire to ”empower menswear in the whole country.”
Despite its far-off geographic location from the usual hubs such as New York and Paris, Luhkanyo describes the fashion scene of Cape Town as diverse and active. “It’s such a different mix of so many different styles and so many different trends,” he says, explaining how the many tourists that annually pay the city a visit diversifies and blurs the fashion on the streets. “There are so many different cultures and backgrounds that are being mixed all the time, and people from around the world who are coming here – it sometimes gets a little tricky to distinguish who is who.” Similarly, he describes CPUT’s fashion department (led by Professor Annadine Vlok) as formative, tough and forward-thinking, with many international students and many graduates continuing to study further overseas.
”I want to use fashion as a means to contribute to something much bigger and far beyond clothes.”
The flourishing fashion scene of SA has most recently brought to life South Africa Mensweek, the first menswear fashion week ever on the African continent (with the Mercedes-Benz-sponsored Bokeh South Africa International Fashion Film Festival and South African Fashion Week already running successfully). Still, it was by no means written in the stars that Lukhanyo was to set up his own menswear brand after graduation. “I’ve seen plenty of times in South Africa where people start brands, and it doesn’t last long before people just burn out. I really didn’t want to be one of those guys,” he recalls. Instead, he planned to save up money working as a waiter in a restaurant in order to go to Europe.
However, when he was invited to do his own show at South Africa Mensweek he knew he had to act. “When you get invited to something like that you basically have to be starting a brand,” he says. “It’s not about just showcasing your collection, it’s also a start-up and a launch-pad for your brand. Eventually I was just like ‘fuck it’, and I just did it.”
SA Mensweek, now in its third season, is a sign of the increasing rooting and progression of African menswear, which according to Lukhanyo still enjoys limited celebration. “The faster and the bigger it grows, the more of an impact it’s going to have on the world. I think a lot of African designers are going to be recognised for the work they’re doing on our continent.” This is much needed, as fashion currently remains a cultural underdog on much of the African continent, highly lacking funding and general public interest. “There’s a lot of things that need to be done in order to fully go out there and get the customers,” he explains – “arts in general is not really prioritised here in my country, as compared to sports.”
Thankfully, Lukhanyo went for it anyway, and impressed international fashion media when he launched the look book of his A/W collection Taintless, which depicts two lonely figures roaming a desert-like landscape dressed in minimalist and forward-looking fashion. His garments skilfully collide historically Orientalist with Western urban references (officially welcoming back the fanny pack in menswear) through his personal contemporary scope, and gender is similarly played and manipulated with via the loose silhouettes. He remains overwhelmed from when i-D featured him online, providing him and young South African fashion as a whole with excellent exposure. Lukhanyo speaks just as highly about his many colleagues who are similarly trying to gain footing in the South African industry, and he hopes that he can use his international reputation to push others forward. “These platforms are so important and its great to make people aware of the things going on in Africa. I feel like someone out there is going to read it and someone is going to help us. If you help me, I’ll help some other creatives, and hopefully that’s going to give some kind of ripple effect. I want to be that person to help South Africa,” he reflects.
As Lukhanyo puts it, you need “fucking perseverance” to make it as a young designer in South Africa. “Now that I’m aware of the struggles, I’ve just decided that I don’t want to be a victim of them,” he tells me. “Don’t expect anyone to help you, and no one’s going to see your dream the way that you see it. If you have the perseverance, you’re the only person who can make it right.” He continues to work part-time in a local restaurant (in fact, he is Skyping from his dinner break), which is quite common for young designers in his periphery.
“At the end of the day, we wear clothes every single day and fashion is a huge part of our lives, but people just seem to need to understand that”
The recurring thought for the designer and many of the designers around him is the idea of leaving South Africa altogether, to pursue greener pastures in Europe or America – but Lukhanyo feels ambivalent about such a career move. He feels eternally linked to his native country, and wants to help its fashion scene grow and flourish, despite the current struggle. “As much as people are appreciating us, there’s still a large group of us that not supported enough, and not enough people are buying our stuff,” he reflects. “It’s really difficult to make proper businesses and create the brands that we want because, although people are commending us and people are supporting us, they’re not financially supporting us.”
Yet, since his latest collection Lukhanyo Mdingi has received interest from international buyers, but he is taking it slowly to avoid any crashes mid-air. “I’m all about instincts, and if I don’t feel it, I’m definitely not going to pursue it. I’m more patient than anything else,” he says. He understands that in order to “really blow up big,” he needs to learn more, and he is thinking of studying overseas and launching his brand there. “In order to have success in Africa, you need to have success overseas, and then come back and be truly recognised. I do want Cape Town to be like Paris, New York or Milan – it’s important to me for my country to celebrate its culture in the way that other cultures do. At the end of the day, we wear clothes every single day and fashion is a huge part of our lives, but people just seem to need to understand that,” he finishes. We all look forward to seeing Mdingi’s next move.
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
All images courtesy of Lukhanyo Mdingi
Runway images by SDR Photo
Campaign Images By: Travys Owen
Art Directing and Styling: Gabrielle Kannemeyer
MUA: Amori Birch
Models: Toyin @ Ice Models
Gandhi @ Wicked Talent
Assistance: Jasleen Matharu and Miguel Brown