01 March 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Culture by design

I have a huge appetite for South African design. I went to the Design Indaba Conference and Expo hoping to feed it and, I was astounded by its generosity. There are exciting things happening in South Africa as our designers explore new ways of seeing, being and creating meaning through form and functionality in the fields of fashion, furniture, architecture, advertising, IT…

I was buoyed by the collective energy produced by bringing together international design experts and the South African design community to exchange ideas and share their work.

For me, Eastern Cape designer Laduma Ngxokolo symbolized what it’s all about. I heard him speak during the Pecha Kucha session of the conference, where young designers from all over the world were invited to talk about their work.

His line of men’s knitwear combines elements that are deeply personal and unequivocally South African with principles of sustainability, quality and aesthetics. Together, these have resulted in a product that is globally competitive and highly desirable as a fashion item.

How has he done all of this? Well, he looked inwards and was inspired by what he knows - his Xhosa identity. He explained how, in Xhosa culture, young, male, initiates are required to get a new wardrobe to represent their new status. This cultural ritual, which has been practiced for centuries, coexists with modern young South Africans interest in global urban style brands and the status they afford their wearers.

So he has drawn on the geometrics of traditional Xhosa beadwork and colour symbolism (replicable in knitting) and combined it with a modern design aesthetics (think Pringle) to create knitwear that embodies both the modern and the traditional elements of young Xhosa identity - pride in who they are and where they’re from - and pride in where they’re going as citizens of the world.

He also uses natural fibres sourced from the Eastern Cape, giving a boost to the province’s mohair farmers and cutting down the costs and risks of sourcing his raw materials.  The end result? Highly marketable, fashionable men’s wear that makes the ‘local’, ‘global’, and embodies Xhosa culture and identity for a new generation.

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