Indiana University Press
  • On Tradition, Symbolism, and (South) Afrikanness1 in Fashion DesignA Conversation with Laduma Ngxokolo

In the South African context, since 2011, Laduma Ngxokolo has been a standout example of the precept of Afrikanness, garnering numerous national and international awards and accolades for his Afroluxe design ethos. As founder of the fashion brand MaXhosa Africa, he has transitioned from enfant terrible to respected international fashion and textile design visionary, constantly producing evocative and compelling looks that mine his Xhosa traditions and histories in the pursuit of producing culturally significant work for a cosmopolitan audience. He imbues his work with references to Xhosa beading and symbols and the ("secret") messaging embedded therein, the influence of bold traditional color combinations, brave pattern contrasts, and contemporized garment silhouettes that mix Afrikan and Western sensibility. The essence of Afrika and the alluring mysteries surrounding cultural production that are embodied in tradition, histories, language, rites and rituals, symbols, and mythologies have become a signature aspect of contemporary Afrikan design. Across the continent, designers in general, and fashion designers in particular, are proudly infusing their work with ideas emanating from these issues, definitive of their individual groupings and ethnicities but also broadly encompassing of their Afrikanness.2 Ngxokolo's most recent collection, Lindelwa (We are the ones they have been waiting for), shown in part at Rakuten Fashion Week in September 2021, signals a collaboration with Japan's Tokyo Knit combine. Curious about the new trajectory, I engage the designer on this hybrid venture, his thoughts on Afrikanness, and the future of South Afrikan fashion design.

Bruce Cadle:

Laduma, you have always been adamant that your work reflects aspects of your heritage, Xhosa traditions, and recognition of the symbolic values embedded in rituals, mythologies, your ancestors, and oral histories, right from the very beginning of your career. Is that still the case?

Laduma Ngxokolo:

I think it will forever be the case, and the name upholds that reference as well, and is also the reason why I deliberately chose the name MaXhosa (which means "the Xhosa people"). The initial concept behind me naming the brand MaXhosa was to contextualize that the [End Page 255] aesthetic of the brand stems from a foundation of the Xhosa people that I referenced. Then, when I [transformed] the brand a couple of years ago, I think it was three years ago, I removed "by Laduma" and substituted it with "Africa" because there was an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate other cultures as well, and since 2011 I've never let go of referencing our Xhosa aesthetic. And yes, the brand is dominantly built from that; in fact, I don't even take much when I go back to the original sources that I use for the [design of the] patterns. I instead modify what already exists, and this is not because I don't want to create something fresh every season, but from a business and brand perspective it is always a good idea to bring back what people already know and what already works as well. An example [of this is] the Louis Vuitton monogram, which has been around for more than five decades and is stamped into people's [minds]. That's what I have been trying to build with MaXhosa. We've had success with modifying that original aesthetic, but even though we originally sourced from Xhosa tradition, we've created a subculture that's strong enough to outgrow the [Xhosa] culture itself and [include] faces of other cultures; hence what we did in Japan.

Cadle:

The work you've just done with Tokyo Knit (MaXhosa Africa 2021b) is fascinating in how it evokes a very stylish cultural merging or mashup. The collection Lindelwa (after your late mother) is captured in the byline, "We are the ones they have been waiting for." There are significant things happening here, uwagi-style jackets, shitabaki-style pants, glitch pattern black-and-white knits, mixed with Xhosa-influenced motifs (Figure 1). It resonated with a Japaneseness that was intrinsically Afrikan; I realized that was because the silhouette was Japanese, and the surface design and intensity were Xhosa. Are you pushing a more hybrid culture for MaXhosa?

Ngxokolo:

As the years progressed and as I evolved as a brand, one of the things that I questioned about the luxury brands that are in the market field that we play in was if one could name a brand that is based on culture.

Cadle:

Very few I suppose; most are based on stylistic or historical influences, very little cultural influence.

Ngxokolo:

Most of them are based on heritage, like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and other French and Italian brands, so for me one of the strongest objectives [was] to prove that culture does have the potential to be [promoted] and not [be confined to] museums. With the values that culture carries, a lot can be learned from it, and therefore we cannot be naive and ignorant about culture, as it is a good way for us to find [our] identity as the new generation that cross-pollinates across continents.

I got the opportunity to go and visit Japan for a couple of weeks and got so immersed into the culture that I learned there were a lot of similarities between Japanese culture and Xhosa culture, and I noted how sentimental the Japanese people are about their culture, as well with them being so far apart from the rest of the world. I thought that it was very important that we share what our cultural references look like as a form of educating them [End Page 256]

Figure 1. Ngxokolo at GQ South Africa Hennessy Men of the Year 2021 awards, wearing a suit showing the Japanese-Xhosa influences in a more formal application. GQ South Africa. Source: Laduma Ngxokolo.
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Figure 1.

Ngxokolo at GQ South Africa Hennessy Men of the Year 2021 awards, wearing a suit showing the Japanese-Xhosa influences in a more formal application. GQ South Africa. Source: Laduma Ngxokolo.

[End Page 257] [rather than] changing my aesthetic in order to please that market, and with the collaboration that we've been doing, a hybrid aesthetic [developed] from that. It is something that I always endorse, even though we are a cultural brand, an Afrikan brand. That does not mean that we are going to Japan or France or America, stay[ing] stagnant and not adapt[ing] to the culture that is happening there. It doesn't even have to be a traditional culture: it can be a subculture like hip-hop. We've got a lot of hip-hop clients, and they dress up our pieces in ways that we never imagined, like with balaclavas for instance. The hybrid thing has been something that has been gradually growing within the brand. It's becoming more visible, now that we are able to reach out to other [countries].

Cadle:

Being a bit cynical, is this not style masquerading as culture—a dilution of culture?

Ngxokolo:

I see it as an evolution of culture. As someone who was born postapartheid, I'm able to differentiate my preferences and say that when it comes to Heritage Day or traditional ceremonies, I don't dress up in a cultural way, but instead I take elements from that culture and modernize it in order to suit my tastes, so that I'll be able to wear it daily in a stylish way, which in essence is the value behind MaXhosa. Yes, we appreciate culture, but we believe we cannot only celebrate it in Heritage Month: it should be celebrated daily. It should live within technology and our sophisticated lifestyles. It must be comfortable. Whoever looks at it should relate and not feel that it is a collector's item. I want people to take their culture everywhere they go.

Cadle:

Unlike the capsule collection shown at Rakuten Tokyo Fashion Week, Lindelwa (We are the ones they have been waiting for) SS22 appears to reflect on your history, with some familiar looks from your earlier work, as well as infer a future direction (MaXhosa Afrika 2021a).3

Ngxokolo:

Every time I do a show, I try to revive my works and try to remind people of the old pieces. When we started in 2011, our exposure was not big enough, but now with a broader audience and more media [coverage], I do a throwback and showcase strong pieces that I created [much earlier] (Figure 2). In most cases I just change colors and do new colorways, and it's still fresh; that even surprises me!

Cadle:

The patterns, motifs, color relationships, and accessories are clearly informed by your Xhosa background. There is a notable effort to foreground these abstracted motifs in your video, the backdrop to your Tokyo show, and even the striking black-and-white umbhaco-style4 suit from 2019. Do they mean specific things that only amaXhosa5 recognize or understand?

Ngoxkolo:

I've always [been painstaking about] that since the beginning, that even though I source from pieces that have traditional and symbolic meaning, what we create doesn't represent those symbolic meanings because we modify them, and we don't want to stamp ourselves as the official authority [End Page 258] of the culture, because the culture still lives. In the world, there [are people] scattered in the rural areas that are still creating symbols and communicating with beadwork. We've entered a different paradigm, where we are creating visual communication where the pieces don't represent a [specific] cultural symbolism.

Figure 2. Always the consummate brand ambassador for MaXhosa, Ngxokolo dresses in an evolution of pieces. The knitted shawl, integral to traditional Xhosa dress, references beadwork and colors and Pringleinspired jerseys worn by Xhosa initiates after Ulwaluko circumcision rites (see ). The pattern on the pants is a printed, abstracted interpretation of beadwork; the dress, reflecting the latest stylistic evolution, shows the beadwork-influenced pattern as a subtle embossing. The branded balaclava is Ngxokolo's response to customers dressing up his pieces with their own balaclavas in a sophisticated urban "gangsta" vibe. Source: Laduma Ngxokolo.
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Figure 2.

Always the consummate brand ambassador for MaXhosa, Ngxokolo dresses in an evolution of pieces. The knitted shawl, integral to traditional Xhosa dress, references beadwork and colors and Pringleinspired jerseys worn by Xhosa initiates after Ulwaluko circumcision rites (see https://maxhosa.africa/brand-story). The pattern on the pants is a printed, abstracted interpretation of beadwork; the dress, reflecting the latest stylistic evolution, shows the beadwork-influenced pattern as a subtle embossing. The branded balaclava is Ngxokolo's response to customers dressing up his pieces with their own balaclavas in a sophisticated urban "gangsta" vibe. Source: Laduma Ngxokolo.

Cadle:

To most viewers, these are hidden-in-plain-sight narratives or symbols that non-Xhosa readers relate to because of their visuality, brio, and lushness. How do you feel about offering these signifiers of Xhosa culture, which have meaning for you, but are just perceived as design with a great sense of Afrika, by your customers?

Ngxokolo:

A reference that I always use is Burberry, with their tartan that originated with the Scottish and was adapted by the British monarchy as part of their traditional dress code. Burberry created a unique one, which they trademarked to distribute their heritage to the rest of the world. It is the same with MaXhosa. We have evolved a culture and have opened it up to the world in a gracious way by [revealing] the context behind it first, so the customer [End Page 259] can be enticed to be part of it, because when one just consumes it because it is beautiful, chances are that they will ignore it next time because they don't know much about it. In most of the [countries] that I have been to, I tell the story behind my brand to reach the crowd, and then they gravitate to it (or not) because they are [seduced] by the history.

Cadle:

This brings me to the notion of Afrikanness. Many designers from across Afrika proclaim this as a fundamental tenet of their creative purpose—Kenneth Ize, Thebe Magugu, Mzukisi Mbane, Masa Mara, to name a few. Do you see your work as being imbued with the essence of Afrikanness?

Ngxokolo:

Keeping the true essence of [the culture] is very important, and I've always [maintained] that sentiment. When I source raw material locally, it just feels better because what's the point of me creating a brand that has culturally local pride but is manufactured in China? I've met a lot of businesspeople that have tried to entice me [to do this], but I've always said no, of course. That comes at a certain cost, but you save your credibility and exclusivity, and [you] control copyright as well. [Regarding Afrikanness], I think that what I do represents neo-Afrikanness (Figures 3 and 4). I choose to define my world by creating something that [represents] the Afrikan utopia that I want to live in. I like to quote Ben Okri[, a Nigerian writer,] who says that there are three Afrikas; the Afrika seen on the news that is all poverty, the tourist destination, and then the Afrika that we live in, that is efficient, corrupt, political, but unfolds daily, in plain sight, like the designers you mentioned, the technological innovation, endless possibilities coming out of the continent. We deliberately position MaXhosa [within the latter], building a new universe that we aspire to live in.

Cadle:

Tony Fry (2017) suggests that selective appropriation is an inevitable characteristic of cultural artifacts in the Global South (in our case, South Africa). Can you comment on these views, especially in the light of your recent collection reveal in Tokyo?

Ngxokolo:

In the space that we live in right now, we've had a lot of cases of appropriation and misappropriation, but with the resources we have in the world today, it's possible to own and protect culture and intellectual property. More important right now is to own the [manufacturing] infrastructure, so that's a question that I always ask myself about MaXhosa: what is it doing for the economy of South Africa (and Afrika)?—and it is the most important subject that I address [in public forums]. We are coming up with beautiful ideas, but we cannot back them up with reliable infrastructure.

Cadle:

For an industry accused of being the "second largest cause of pollution worldwide" (Woodside and Fine 2019, 111), sustainability in fashion is an urgent imperative. How is MaXhosa Africa intending to address these sustainability issues for the future and Afrika's fledgling luxury fashion industry? [End Page 260]

Figure 3. Lagos Fashion Week 2018. Strapless gown in printed silk. The pattern simulates graphically simplified and enlarged beading. The blanket pin choker incorporates the MaXhosa symbol. SDR Photo. Source: ; reprinted with permission from Group of Creatives.
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Figure 3.

Lagos Fashion Week 2018. Strapless gown in printed silk. The pattern simulates graphically simplified and enlarged beading. The blanket pin choker incorporates the MaXhosa symbol. SDR Photo. Source: http://ramp.sdr.co.za/1810LFW/Maxhosa/18_LFW_1650_SDR.jpg.php; reprinted with permission from Group of Creatives.

Figure 4. Lagos Fashion Week 2018. Knitted red pinafore dress based on ncebethe worn by mature women to show modesty by covering breasts and genitals. Oversized beaded earrings complete the ensemble. SDR Photo. Source: ; reprinted with permission from Group of Creatives.
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Figure 4.

Lagos Fashion Week 2018. Knitted red pinafore dress based on ncebethe worn by mature women to show modesty by covering breasts and genitals. Oversized beaded earrings complete the ensemble. SDR Photo. Source: http://ramp.sdr.co.za/1810LFW/Maxhosa/18_LFW_1618_SDR.jpg.php; reprinted with permission from Group of Creatives.

Ngxokolo:

My material of choice would always be durable because historically, [from] experience, the clothes that I've inherited from my parents and grandparents are natural materials that are durable and that [can be handed] down to the next generation. I still maintain that value because with the material that I use, I consider sustainability so that the garments are inheritable objects—they have cultural significance and longevity—because they're made and finished off carefully. Slow fashion interests me a lot, and I think it's going to grow more as a future trend.

Cadle:

Are you considering what effect your work will have on the future fashion industry in South Africa?

Ngoxokolo:

Absolutely! It's something that I think about [constantly]. Human capital is top priority, not just their [MaXhosa employees'] wellbeing financially but psychologically, because for decades during apartheid, [End Page 261] people had a misperception that culture can never be a luxury brand. It's also a way of learning and a place of pride. Some of the people that work here are from a Zulu background, so it feels awkward for them to work in a company called MaXhosa.6 Over time, that perception changes to a sense of pride. So we often have xenophobic issues within the company. I mean, its Johannesburg, the mixed masala.7 We sit them down and educate them on the values that the brand represents. We're proud of our culture, and we expect them to be proud of theirs and to represent their culture within our working space.

Bruce Cadle
Nelson Mandela University

NOTES

1. Several authors infer that Afrikanness is a value present in artifacts from the continent in the ways in which they intersect with and affect society. They reflect human-centeredness in how the material and immaterial conjoin through the semiotics of culture; designers' personal experiences and ethnographies are then able to emerge in their creative practice (Clarke 2016; Janzer and Weinstein 2019; Kries and Klein 2015; Nyamayaro 2021). The decision to spell Afrikan/ness in this way stems from the dictum by Es'Kia Mphahlele, a respected author, academic, and activist, that spelling Africa with a c is Eurocentric, a colonial holdover, and that it has no identifiable linguistic root in Afrikan languages (Moloi 2017, 74).

2. Charles Ngwena (2018, 14) refers to this as a sense of "belonging in Africa" that is inclusive of all Afrikans.

3. The full SS2022 collection, launched on November 5, is available at https://youtu.be/_OMrRn4ebVs.

4. Umbhaco refers to traditional-style Xhosa outfits, where beads and black-binding patterns contrast against white or red cotton. These outfits are usually worn for special occasions or weddings, with beads, headpieces, and accessories incorporating some form of skirt and shawl for both men and women. See https://www.instagram.com/p/BzvjcBanyLe/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link.

5. amaXhosa is the term used to refer to the Xhosa people as an ethnic group.

6. South Africa has eleven official languages and commensurately more than eleven cultural variants, even among the amaXhosa, where different clans subscribe to different values and traditions. The point that Ngxokolo is making here is merely to illustrate that those differences and potential for dissension become unimportant for MaXhosa employees, who eventually see themselves as members of an extended and unified cultural group: despite varied language, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, they share a common purpose.

7. Masala is a spicy curry mix and a popular ingredient in local cooking. Ngxokolo uses it here as a metaphor to describe the cosmopolitanism and diversity of Johannesburg.

REFERENCES CITED

Clarke, Alison J. 2016. "The New Design Ethnographers 1968–1974: Towards a Critical Historiography of Design Anthropology." In Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vankilde, Mette Gislev Kjærsgaard, Tom Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder, 71–85. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Fry, Tony. 2017. "Design for/by 'The Global South'." Design Philosophy Papers 15 (1): 3–37.
Janzer, Cinnamon, and Lauren Weinstein. 2019. "Social Design and Neocolonialism." In The Social Design Reader, edited by Elizabeth Resnick, 361–73. London: Bloomsbury.
Kries, Matteo, and Amelie Klein, eds. 2015. Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design. Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum.
MaXhosa Africa. 2021a. "Face A-J / MaXhosa Africa 2022 S/S Collection: Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo 2022 S/S." YouTube video, 6:04. Uploaded September 3, 2021, by Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdpnX41PNZk&t=304s.
———. 2021b. Instagram video, 6:55. Uploaded September 3, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/CTWvboBDADy/.
Moloi, Tshepo Mvulane. 2017. "Pan-Afrikanism or Man-Afrikanism?" The Thinker: A Pan-African Quarterly for Thought Leaders 74:74–76.
Ngwena, Charles. 2018. What Is Africanness? Contesting Nativism in Race, Culture and Sexualities. Pretoria: Pretoria University Law Press.
Nyamayaro, Elizabeth. 2021. "'Girl from Africa' Takes Ubuntu to the World." Mail and Guardian, July 9–15, 2021, 30.
Woodside, Arch G., and Monica B. Fine. 2019. "Sustainable Fashion Themes in Luxury Brand Storytelling: The Sustainability Fashion Research Grid." Journal of Global Fashion Marketing 10 (2): 111–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/20932685.2019.1573699.

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