Last week we published the first of a two-part interview with the designer Laduma Ngxokolo. Since then, his Maxhosa By Laduma shawl was voted the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at the recent Design Indaba. In our follow-up exclusive interview, he weighs in on the challenges of manufacturing and the scourge of misappropriation.
Noted Man (NM): Many designers say they would love to source and manufacture everything locally but it’s too expensive. In 2016, how does that argument still wash, as someone who is very serious about those kinds of things? Is that true? Are there things to get around it?
Laduma Ngxokolo(LN): I personally think it’s the easiest time to produce locally. Yes it is challenging but considering that minimum wage regulations have not yet been implemented, although it’s expensive, it’s not as expensive as it will be when those regulations are implemented. I have been outsourcing production and the sad part is that until I get my own in-house production facility, I will never have 100% control of the production.
NM: Does that worry you?
LN: It worries me a lot because it jeopardises my intellectual property (IP). Although we can sign an agreement with a manufacturer they can still expose my intellectual property to their clients to come up with ideas that are appropriated from mine. That has happened twice with a manufacturer that I worked with in Cape Town but I had good lawyers that helped me resolve that problem. It’s small and big organisations that make it difficult for themselves and for us to produce locally. From my trips in Italy, going to shows and exhibitions I realised that the power of the infrastructure they have, has a huge impact on the success of designers. A lot of designers that launched just a year ago are already turning over about 10 million Euros, which is something that is almost impossible in South Africa. With that said, my ultimate goal is to own my own production facility and 2016 is the year I aim to achieve that. It’s about time I go that risky route.
NM: How was the experience leading up to your Milan showcase?
LN: It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in the fashion industry. There is a passion for fashion in Milan that I have not experienced anywhere in the world. Also how informed people are about fashion and the importance of production infrastructure and marketing. I exhibited at the Palazzo Morando and the feedback was just amazing. There was this old lady that told me about how she used to own a knitwear factory that she sold to Georgio Armani. She told me that my work could be great if I owned nice infrastructure. She now owns a studio that houses 100 000 knitwear samples where you pay to to see the samples and sketch down and she gives you ideas on how to design a knitwaer collection. Those are the type of experiences I had there.
NM: Earlier on, you were speaking about misappropriation and you were speaking specifically about a problem you had with a supplier, but appropriation can happen in a lot of ways. A person appropriating your stuff does not need to have access to your production, do they?
LN: It can happen in a lot of ways, including using media material. The easiest way would be to go to someone’s supplier or manufacturer and get it replicated within a day. It’s the same as going to a Chinese manufacturer that manufacturers Ralph Lauren and get them to make a shirt that you want with the same cut, sizing, fabric as Ralph Lauren and just changing the branding. Unfortunately that has been happening for decades but as a designer I always aim to be as distinctive as possible and make my work bold enough to be recognised by people as a Maxhosa pattern or style. When I source raw materials for instance, I don’t buy off the shelf. I get spinning mills to spin the specific yarn that I want; create a blend of wool and mohair that I prefer; dye raw materials with the colours that I specifically chose initially as signature colours of the brand. That whole combination makes my work distinctive and consistent. I’ve gotten notifications from my raw material suppliers that production agents have been asking them to sell them raw materials they supply me with. Although we signed an agreement with the supplier, that doesn’t stop someone from getting those raw materials since they can easily buy a Maxhosa jersey and get those samples cut and go to another raw materials supplier.
(After another, more recent incident where he felt that while his IP was not infringed, his look was misappropriated) I decided to sit down with my team and we discussed how to respond to it with the public so that the public is aware how we feel about it. One of my team members said: “Misappropriation is the last hope of the one without imagination” This statement calmed me down because as a designer I’ve realised that the value of vision is more important than a brand’s milestones. Some people’s visions are very limited. I look beyond borders of fashion and the superficial scene in fashion so we decided not to release a statement confirming that ‘this is a spin-off of ideas that we put money into. We chose to humble ourselves and respond with excellence. However, we were disappointed in writers that give credibility to work that is not made with integrity. Writers that I respected are not honest enough to say that ‘actually, we really love this but it reminds us of such and such’ and have an honest opinion about what they see on stage. I don’t know how far their awareness stretches but as far I know, I showcased my work in Cape Town and Milan and also handed out lookbooks so people and the media are aware, but they won’t say how they feel about it.
NM: Why do you think that is?
LN: I think people are too comfortable with sponsorship agreements they have with brands and favours that they get from them. They are in a comfort zone within these relationships they have established with brands, designers and organisations but they are actually compromising their work because if a person is honest enough to write about what they see they could grow beyond South African/African borders and get invited to amazing shows.
NM: Where do you draw the line between misappropriation and inspiration?
LN: The line lies between positive and negative. It’s true that there’s nothing new under the sun but you as a designer are new because your ideas are a hybrid of everything you consume. You can choose to appropriate and interpret in a negative or positive way. Negative would be a person not being committed enough to change the identity and own it and positive would be executing the idea in a personal way. A lot of global fashion brands personalise the interpretation of ideas. Take Beyonce’s Formation for example, it was inspired by that documentary but Beyonce re-interpreted the story and owned it and the director was honest enough to say “yes, we took the idea. We paid for it.” A cheque was exchanged for that idea, all you have to do is speak to people or acknowledge them.
NM: Would it be enough for you if someone took your idea, translated it into something else in the fashion space and acknowledged that you were their inspiration?
LN: It’s more than enough because it gets documented. We live in a digital world now where when you publish something – if you typed a reference name- information comes up. People can price your value based on the power of your ideas. Some people have done that before and I have seen that power resonate at conferences through people speaking about that for instance, the iPhone case I am using was done by a young graphic designer I mentored. He went to Design Indaba to showcase this and he acknowledged that it was inspired by my take on design. IP wise, I don’t own the idea, he does but you can see my ideology of pairing the modern with the old when you look at this work. When you search on-line you can find that reference. I always tell people that I never believed that knitwear could become a success on the catwalk until I read about the Missonis at the library in Varsity. I got inspired by that story. When the Missoni family came to Design Indaba last year to present, when the speaker introduced Rosita Missoni they said “we are about to share here a story that is currently inspiring a young creative that is growing from strength to strength who we’ve seen here at Designed Indaba, Laduma Ngxokolo.” I went to a Missoni show last year and mingled with the creative directors and they told me that Angela Missoni, creative director head of women’s wear, asked one of them to go through my Instagram and said she loves what I do. If I was copying their style, doing zigzags they would not have respected me but they see that I am inspired by beadwork.
Feature Image: Maxhosa Moodboard
All images courtesy of Maxhosa By Laduma