Derrick Mhlongo | Fashion as activism

Having entered the fashion industry as a model, Mr Derrick Mhlongo has gone on to build a huge reputation and a successful three-pronged fashion business out of a love and empathy for his people. MR SIPHIWE MPYE had a chat with him about ‘the industry’, pride, activism, mentorship and Iimbadada. 

Noted Man (NM): In a paragraph, please introduce yourself.

Derrick Mhlongo (DM): I am Derrick Mhlongo, 45 years old, from Kwa Mashu (Durban, South Africa). I have two daughters and have been married for 6 years. I run three businesses (in fashion), built over 11 years. Decamm Productions, a fashion styling & fashion show/pageant/photography production company; Iindoni Modeling Agency and the clothing store, 30 on Marriott – a space for young designers around KZN to sell their clothes. 

NM: For the first six years of my life, we were neighbours. For those not familiar with the township of Kwa-Mashu, what was it like then?

DM: It was a township and my only reality for a long time. I had nothing else to compare it to. It was home. I loved it, before I could understand the political dimensions. Until one was educated about what they were missing, seeing how other people were living, things they had access to. I realised that something was not right and needed to get out. An idea was planted in my head that I had to get out of that, it was not healthy.  I do appreciate what it planted in me, which was very instrumental in making me the man I am today. My home is still there. I still visit my dad and siblings there and it is always a soul nourishing experience.

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NM: You have said in a previous interview that you were a product of Bantu Education, what does that mean in the context of where you have ended up in life?

 DM: I uttered those words to highlight how one has overcome those circumstances, that I have not succumbed to what was intended by that system. It is an acknowledgement that one has worked hard to do that. I say this with pride: I actually succeeded. It says that I am not apologetic, not a victim.

NM: You mentor a lot of young black talent in the industry and have taken flak for example, for not taking on white models at Iindoni, take me through that. 

DM:  I was scouted by the late Alfred Nokwe (who lived on a street parallel to my where my home is situated on the main road), who got me into an advert. He encouraged me to find a modelling school in town and I did, it belonged to the late Titus Ntsibande, a Zimbabwean man. I remember joining what is now Ice (previously Leigh Downing) and I got opportunities and gained confidence. When I look back, I realised that I was at the right place at the right time and light-skinned (I didn’t know about the advantage of having light skin), moved to Cape Town, doing international work.

I got to a point where I was not growing and decided to focus on my production company in Durban. People would come to me asking me to help their child get into modelling and half the time I just sent them to Ice. After a while I realised that they were not growing, not getting looked after. I was looking at what was happening globally, Alek Wek etc. and these kids were not breaking through. There were socio-economic issues that they were not accustomed to. They were frightened of the industry. I wanted black kids to get the education and support to succeed. I understood the language, the culture and economic challenges. That’s what informed the blacks only agency. The focus is affirming them in their blackness, their organic being. We teach them about how to grow, get them jobs in retail so they can learn about how different aspects of business work, but also for an income because money does not come immediately in modelling.

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NM: You emphasise that you were a special case, an exception, yet many of us are guilty of telling a narrative that doesn’t frame black success like that. The way motivational messaging works, you would be forgiven for thinking that there were no structural impediments, that all one needed was to work hard. 

DM: The challenge with designers and models, is that they want to be popular, to be better than their friends, they want to be the next Gucci. It is all about ego. Then they go there and are exploited, doing jobs when they don’t even know how much they are going to get paid. My challenge is to try to expose them to the realities of the industry, that this can be a business, that they can earn a living, build a home, that this is not just about ego. The other reality is not a pleasant story: out of ten models I scout, only one will make it. The race issue is huge. They learn that if a client, a big brand in SA, is looking for models and there are ten of them at the casting, only one will be chosen. When you talk politics and how distorted things are, how the lifestyle industry is set up, we (black people) have the most consumers but in terms of representivity, it is not there. When they get to castings, kids are told they look ‘primitive’. I want to make sure that they don’t lose themselves in the process. It can cripple them. It’s the same with designers.

You get a guy from the townships making pants and selling them at R500, and then he gets scouted for a fashion week, working with current industry players such as stylists, platform directors, and suddenly his clothes are ‘not on trend’, his style is too traditional, he can’t use a Brenda Fassie song for his show. Designers are frustrated. Besides David Tlale, where are the successful black designers? What happened to Stoned Cherrie? Where is Sun Goddess? We have the same problem in photography, stylists and make-up artists. All these dynamics need to be looked at carefully.

Research tools like LSMs need to be updated. Black researchers, advertising agency owners, businessmen and women, and marketing specialists need to realise their role as business men and women in preserving our black race and ensuring that we own products, and do not remain only consumers of products.                                                             

NM: Is there a Derrick Mhlongo aesthetic?

DM: Iimbadada baba (traditional Zulu sandals). I have always owned a pair and every year I buy two or three pairs. It is recycling done by AmaZulu from way back. I always have a pair of ibhulukhwe lombhlaselo (patchwork pants with roots in mining). I also like Kurtas (loose collarless shirts favoured in South Asia). I like the idea of mixing perspectives, it’s all in me, I also have a diverse blood line/family tree. As I grew older, I reduced my palette to mostly black and white. I rarely wear colour or prints. This represent a state of clarity in my head, and my positioning as black man, husband, and a father.

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NM: Is there a place for trends?

DM: The word is subjective and a commercial gimmick. It’s the industry players showing their power in moving things in a certain direction. At (London Collections Men) I saw a lot of baggy fits, a move away from the skinny look. It will be interesting to see what goes into the stores (in SA), but I do not see myself wearing baggy pants. Those of us who know better and are not trapped by trends are freer. There is a bigger world out there doing its own thing. That world is in India, Africa and so on. 

 NM: There is a groundswell of enlightenment  (in art, culture, social justice and fashion) and desire to do things our way, how do you put this into perspective?

DM: It’s about us doing things for ourselves, with ourselves in mind. I don’t see it as a fight against whites. We need to produce the full value chain, we need to produce people who develop fabrics, for example. The conversations are necessary. I call myself the Black Panther of the fashion industry and am determined. I will dig up that black person to do that thing that nobody can find a black person to do. It comes from me, no one has sent me to do that. It is an extension of myself. I don’t find it a gruelling task to meet up with a person who seeks out my help.

Art Direction and Production: Mr Derrick Mhlongo

Styling: Mr Luntu Koko

Images: Mr Mondli Madondo

Locations: Iindoni Models and Mr Mhlongo’s home

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