After setting the design scene alight over five years ago with a fresh interpretation of his Xhosa heritage through knitwear, Mr Laduma Ngxokolo has gone on to exhibit and sell internationally. He has spent the last 18 months studying at London’s famed Central St Martins and returned home this week for a special collaboration at Design Indaba. MR SIPHIWE MPYE spoke to him on the eve of his homecoming.
Noted Man (NM): So how long has it been now at Central St. Martins?
Laduma Ngxokolo (LN): It’s been a year and a half now, I still have five months left. I finish in June and after that I have to decide whether to commit to Jo’burg or stay here a bit longer. But I think I’ll stay a bit longer.
NM: Do you think you know what your next move will be after you finish your studies?
LN: I’ve researched and made some moves; registering businesses; getting accountants to do all these things I need to do. I already have customers here so there’s every reason to stay over.
NM: In terms of the work itself, what have you been able to learn from starting as a student at NMMU to the success you’ve enjoyed after that, and then to the UK experience over the last 18 months or so. How do you chart your growth in those 3 stages?
LN: To round it up, the overall experience and what I learnt from it, I think, is to trust my ideas and know that they are not crazy as I thought they were while I was still a student or a young designer growing up in PE. Here I’ve learnt to write my ideas with a pen instead of a pencil. I got exposed to a lot of ideas, crossed boundaries of thinking conservatively and stretching ideas to other possibilities and scenarios. This experience has given me that liberation of ideas.
NM: I’m sure you have been exposed to a lot of new ideas there especially from the peers that you are studying with and others. I know that from a business perspective it’s really opened up your mind but from a creative perspective, what has it done to the way you approach your work now?
LN: It has really enlightened me. My fellow students are from across the world: Europe, Asia and America. I am the only one who is from Africa; the only black person in class among 98% female students. I didn’t know as much as I should have about the Asian market for instance. Sometimes I discuss my ideas and work with my Asian classmates and they give me perspectives that are different to what I would get back home. My classmates from Italy and Portugal also have perspectives to share. We have internal creative discussions among our peers sometimes. It sort of feels like I’m in a design studio, not an institution. The curriculum here insists that ideas have to be shared with the public several times first so there’s something called a Work In Progress Exhibition where they exhibit rough ideas that students are working on and invite the public to come and view them and spend money on such exhibitions. This is something I have not seen back at home, instead we see people throwing out ideas in public without having discussions about them. I think that jeopardises or limits the success of such projects because the project is based on the designer’s hypothetical ideas instead of allowing the public’s contribution which can be more powerful than the designer’s.
NM: That’s interesting because I have tracked some conversations among writers for instance who are also complaining about the same thing, saying there are too many first drafts being published as books without enough editing. There are not enough people giving notes. From a design perspective I can understand and appreciate it because I know how designers work and the feedback is not as critical as it could be in order to improve. Being in that environment, what was your assessment of the blitz of recent (men’s) shows in Europe?
LN: The experience of going to shows here has taught me that anything is possible. All it takes is communication and commitment. Organisations are always open to proposals and helping young emerging creatives and brands to establish their work. In terms of creativity, the system here is interesting because when you look at the designer’s background and their work you can see that their ideas are legitimate. There is no compromise based on feedback from the public. They present themselves and let the public decide how they are gonna interpret the work because not every look succeeds and gets placed in stores. There’ll be one look that stands out or is easily wearable and designers or brands will capitalise on that. That’s what I picked up going to shows, exhibitions and conferences this side.
NM: You speak about collaborations with brands and we know that you are coming back home to collaborate with Chivas Regal at Design Indaba. It’s not your first time at Design Indaba. just take me through firstly, if it means anything to go back there and do something else and secondly, tell me more about the collaboration itself.
LN: I think coming back to do a collaboration with Chivas Regal means a lot to me. It’s a very important agenda especially in Cape Town because it’s where I established my brand as a men’s knitwear brand and Cape Town still remains my best selling territory. Still, there are markets I haven’t yet tapped into in Cape Town, besides Johannesburg. This collaboration will also help me create more awareness in Johannesburg. In Cape Town, Chivas Regal will expose me to high end consumers that they have access to. Also, working with an internationally credible brand will give me a stamp of approval in terms of innovation and exclusivity. Considering the fact that Chivas Regal Africa has never worked with a fashion designer before so this is sort of a brave idea that they invested their money into Design Indaba to align themselves with innovation and localise the brand. While I was working with them I started thinking about how us Xhosa people have adopted whisky brands into our lifestyle and created rituals around them, but those brands have never designed for specific markets. They have never said ‘we recognise the fact that we are selling a lot of bottles in June and December when there are traditional ceremonies in the Eastern Cape so therefore we will change the packaging and localise it’. Instead they have stuck to their Scottish inspired brands. Chivas Regal’s decision to localise themselves for six months made me feel like we were living in a different space entirely where it is more important to be relevant locally than stand in the arrogance of being an international brand that will not adjust to local markets.
The collaboration came about in 2014. I was contacted by Ravi Naidoo, founder of Design Indaba and he told me that Chivas had approached them to do an ad campaign which was based around creatives around the world which was their promotion based around developing entrepreneurs. They asked Design Indaba to choose one creative that they think is springing on great ideas for the future, contributing to social development and doing something which is relevant to the local market and also liberates people in some way so they chose me. Ravi Naidoo was already an ambassador so we did a very short recording that I was featured on and Chivas decided that they need to continue the collaboration.
NM: Tell me specifically about the collaboration?
LN: Chivas decided to adorn their packaging with my patterns that I initially created for my brand. The pattern is mixed with the already existing packaging design. It will have that packaging for the next six months and end in June when young initiates go to circumcision school. They will also give away about 30 pieces to people at the launch. The pattern was on a license basis as they have commissioned me as a designer and they will have the product in stores across South Africa.
NM: So this is beyond what you ordinarily see where a collaboration is interpreted as Laduma wearing Maxhosa by Laduma, holding a glass of Chivas on a billboard.
LN: It’s not that at all. By no means am I an ambassador or endorsing the brand in that sense. It’s a collaboration that is based on companies that share the same values. I’m sort of like the main act featured by Chivas and we are celebrating this ideology because it has to do with patience and valuing the process and integrity of design. This designer that we are talking about never gets tempted to cut corners when it comes to production; quality is very essential; raw materials are very essential for durability so they are sharing that story with the public.
Mr Ngxokolo and Chivas Regal have a stand at Design Indaba, which ends tomorrow. The limited edition pack design will be available in selected South African stores from March 2016.