A large part of the specialized critics saw in the work of the South African designer Rich Mnisi an overly ambitious and utopian project. However, some catalogued his work as a breath of fresh air for the fashion industry, highlighting its connection to an interesting market niche that was thirsty for risky proposals and boundless creativity. After convincing his immediate surroundings, who were sceptical about him ​​studying fashion design, the proposal presented by the creative ended up captivating everyone.
The deep connection with his homeland, the ties established with his ancestors through fabrics and a masterful use of colour, and the development of his culture and traditions left no one indifferent. Aware of the unstoppable globalization process that the world is experiencing, the Rich Mnisi uses contrast and queerness to express himself freely. “Without me telling my story, the truth will never be known,” he says.
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You founded your brand in 2014 after the global economic crisis had unleashed across the planet a few years earlier. What was the first challenge you had to face when you decided to start your project?
Convincing myself and my family that I made the right decision by pursuing fashion. My mother was very sceptical about fashion, it felt like a very frivolous choice to her. My mother is from a generation where they only had two choices, either to be teachers or nurses; and she chose teaching. So a ‘practical’ career path was more appealing to her, but I reassured her of the changing world and the opportunities it had to offer. After proving my point for months, she gave in. But that’s what I love most about the women in my family: they are strong, decisive and fashionable, which is a deadly combination.
You had just graduated from the prestigious design school LISOF. And that same year (2014), you won the Africa Fashion International Young Designer. Your first approach to fashion was undoubtedly a resounding success. What do you think the members of the jury saw in your proposal to proclaim it the winner of the contest?
The judges were split; some thought my brand was too ambitious and that my aesthetic didn’t really have a market, and the other half enjoyed the fresh perspective. I think the uncertainty concluded the newness of the brand and it made it a necessary one to include in the conversation.
Your first trans-seasonal collection, presented in 2017, was titled Xingelengele. A word in Xitsonga – one of the eleven official languages of South Africa – that means bell or siren. The concept delved into changes of opinion, in attempts to undo an action or an idea. Tell us more about it.
At that time, I was going through a bit of uncertainty in my personal and professional life, and I kept wanting to undo quite a few decisions I had made. Each time I’d ‘undo’ an idea in my head, I’d arrive at the same point I had started. That permeated into the collection, and I wanted to create a rigid collection desperate to change into something else but instead stayed stagnant.
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This time, you decided to make a video lookbook, in addition to presenting the collection on the catwalk and through a campaign, which denotes a deep interest in trying different formats. What does each platform give you?
Depth; I’m a storyteller. I love telling stories with visuals, and I love that each format can be interpreted differently. A flower belt on the runway is fabulous; a flower belt in a video lookbook is thought-provoking; a flower belt on a street vendor… The sky is the limit.
How do you combine physical and virtual presentations?
There isn’t a strict format. Sometimes it’s shown together, sometimes it works separately on digital platforms. It depends.
Since the launch of Xingelengele, you have designed five more collections. Two per year, the last one being Alkebulan. The title of the collection refers to the ancestral name for Africa, symbolising in turn an intrinsic connection with your homeland. How important are your origins in your way of working?
Alkebulan is similar to Xingelengele as they both speak to the idea of undoing. In Alkebulan, we imagine a land free of colonisation. We dwell in that fantasy deeper and embrace our heritage and navigate this new unfamiliar land, clean of our ancestors’ blood and pain. I think for us telling stories about our heritage through our work isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. Without me telling my story, the truth will never be known.
“I think for us telling stories about our heritage through our work isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.”
This collection was presented during the last edition of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin. Do you think that one of the biggest challenges in African fashion is to be able to project itself internationally?
I think the problem is possibly how the world receives African fashion. The most gag-worthy pieces, I’ve seen on this soil.
Among your casting, we find both men and women. However, it gives the feeling that all garments can be interchangeable regardless of the gender of the wearer. How do you conceive the differentiation between menswear and womenswear?
I don’t. It just boils down to which model looks good in what.
Colourful prints are one of your most recurring motifs. Blue, purple, orange, yellow, green… The colour palette blends with the garments perfectly. What other characteristics are distinctive to your brand?
The cleanliness of our silhouettes, our story and our inspiration.
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As for your sources of inspiration, South Africa, your homeland, is one of the places you go to for ideas. What other cities, characters, settings or ages inspire your work?
My late great-grandmother, Nwa’Mulamula, a woman I never met but heard great stories about. For Alkebulan, we reimagined the Tinguvu skirt, also known as the Xibelani skirt – a native skirt worn by the Tsonga women for an indigenous dance called the Xibelani, an act in which we express enormous pride in our culture. The hip-accentuating piece is carefully and skillfully knotted on a wool braided rope to create a two-tier fringe masterpiece – a skill that is passed down from generation to generation. Nwa’Mulamula taught Martha (my grandmother), who then passed down the knowledge to Daisy (my mother), who then passed it down to me.
For your campaigns, you tend to resort to natural landscapes. Ragged streets, fields full of cows… Do you do it to demonstrate that design and day-to-day life can go hand in hand?
I do it to place my work in environments familiar to me and many who are like me. In that placement, I try to illustrate queerness as a reminder that it has always existed in those spaces.
You have dressed celebrities like Beyoncé or Naomi Campbell. How did that happen? Did they contact you directly asking about a specific garment?
Both of their teams asked for the pieces months before; I even forgot about it! By the time they wore the pieces, I was so pleased and excited because it was such a beautiful affirming moment for myself and the brand.
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E-commerce and websites are two essential elements for brands nowadays. Your online presence is very well-thought – professional photographs, content structured by collections, direct access to the e-store… Is this your main way of connecting with your customers?
Correct. We launched our online store during lockdown. In South Africa, we have seen different stages of lockdown that have negatively affected every business. We decided we couldn’t afford to be in a ‘wait and see’ mode. First, we needed to change our mindset and reimagine our baseline requirements, and then turn our attention to taking our customer experience to the next level.
During lockdown, you released a small collection of masks, all available on your website. How have you experienced confinement? Have you been forced to paralyze all your projects?
At first, yes, but now we’ve identified more opportunity. I think it is safe to say that every business had anticipated this year to be a great year for opportunities. A year full of strategy and execution to better previous years. The pandemic, however, slowed down some of our operations adhering to the lockdown regulations and the uncertainty of its longevity.
Now, having adjusted to our new normal, we have shifted our business outlook. We have extended the Azania range and have added new pieces – all available on our newly developed online store. Through social listening, ethnography and marketing insights, we have reimagined our baseline requirements as a brand.
And finally, once this situation has come to an end, where would you like to lead your brand?
We are going global!
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