Laduma Ngxokolo is in Lagos, having a beer.
The man from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, looks out from under a wide-brimmed hat, wearing a pop art t-shirt layered underneath a cardigan that you just can’t quite take your eyes off of.
What is it about that sweater? Classic button down form, clear quality construction. He must be warm in the Lagos heat. But it’s the colors, the patterns - they’re a visual feast - and there’s clearly an intelligence behind them. The longer you look, the more you want to know.
The sweater is from his own brand - Maxhosa by Laduma, which Ngxokolo started in 2011. Six years later, with lines for men and women, his creations are stocked all over the world: Cape Town, Johannesburg, London, Tokyo, Amsterdam.
The unbearably beautiful patterns across his knitwear (sweaters, skirts, scarves) impart an easy cool, but there’s no superficiality to them. Instead there’s focus, intensity and deep ties to cultural heritage and tradition. This is not the casual appropriation/exchange so prevalent on runways these days. Laduma’s creations are deeply connected and informed.
The inspiration for the brand came from Laduma’s own cultural tradition - from a desire to make high quality, beautiful knitwear for Xhosa initiates, who give away all their belongings before a coming of age initiation (between the ages of 18-25) that marks their transition from boyhood to manhood. Having been through the process himself, he's well-versed in the history and symbolism of the rituals.
Here's the key for Laduma: for the six months after the initiation, the young men - makrwala (initiates) - dress in new, distinguished, formal clothing purchased as gifts by family members as a way to honor the process. After studying traditional Xhosa beadwork and textiles at university, Laduma found he could translate those patterns to knitwear for families looking to invest in those quality, long-lasting wardrobes.
“I discovered there was a niche market in that consumption. Most brands available to initiates are western brands that don’t at all resemble our traditional Xhosa aesthetic. And we have the most beautiful beadwork in Africa,” he explains.
Laduma also looked to appeal to a young market influenced by hip hop and Italian fashion, turning those influences into something that would resonate with them culturally.
“And that’s where Maxhosa came from.” He hit on an important nerve there - the market was ready for it. “South Africa was hungry for that after apartheid, looking for identity. The African diaspora overseas was looking for something that reflected where they came from.”
Maxhosa means the Xhosa People. “So that's me telling stories of the Xhosa people from my own perspective,” he says. He has different themes for each season - in 2015 it was ‘My Heritage, My Inheritance’ - inspired by his late mother, a knitwear designer in the late 80s.
“She was an amazing designer. But because of the political climate at that time she couldn’t grow beyond her circumstances,” he says. “So today I’m sort of living her dream, opening up opportunities for others to see that it’s possible to create something that’s globally credible but inspired by local content.”
Maxhosa is home grown. Laduma produces his knitwear entirely in South Africa, with raw material (mostly woolen mohair) from Port Elizabeth. “We have the biggest mohair industry in the world and the biggest wool industry in Africa,” he says. “So I take advantage of those resources to come up with products that are premium, produced locally and yet relevant to the local market and to the people who visit South Africa.”
This is the way it should be, no? Brilliant artists analyzing, thinking deeply about, honoring their heritage and translating it to the rest of the world - first. Cultural exchange and inspiration are exciting and necessary, but the world needs more of this kind of deep education and understanding and context. More of what Laduma has done.
African designers are still underrepresented on the international catwalks, but African design and patterns are everywhere.
“I have contrasting feelings when I look at these [international designers] collections,” he told Vogue in 2014. “A part of me is happy because Africa has a chance of appearing in the prêt-a-porter fashion shows. On the other hand, knowing how important the history and the meanings behind every symbol of African culture are, I’m puzzled when I see them used without full knowledge of the facts.”
And how key that he’s in town showing his SS17 collection at Lagos Fashion & Design Week - in a city that bursts with African brilliance and cultural power. It’s his first time visiting the megacity, a clear site of inspiration and future collaboration for him.
“[In terms of fashion] Lagos is on the top as compared to other cities, even Johannesburg. I think here designers are more prolific and globally aware, and embrace their local presence and content. They use that power to create things that can compete in a global market,” he says. “Nigeria is coming up with something that’s exciting and also inspiring for the rest of us as Africans. The culture exchange South Africa has with Nigeria has been amazing journey I’ve been following, and fashion is actually starting to pick up on that trend as well. That will add value to our industry and make African fashion flourish globally.”
Laduma is currently working on his AW17 season, which he says he’s designing to be the best in the world. “I’ve realized that with travels in Europe and Asia, I’ve picked up a lot of influence and learned so much about the fashion industry in Paris and Italy. I know it’s possible - as a small brand based in South Africa - that we can come up with a nuclear weapon built in a small city called Port Elizabeth that will boom in March next year.”
We’re watching and waiting, ready to be knocked off our feet. He leaves us with this:
“This is a perfect time for Africa. There isn’t another greater feeling better than being African at the present moment. The world is watching.”
All images c/o Maxhosa by Laduma
More at http://www.maxhosa.co.za