You can see the first light of day on the tips of the cattle’s horns; you can hear the downtown hustle and the chants of the Xhosa ancestors; you can feel the rolling rhythms of the Eastern Cape; you can touch the world through its folds: London, Paris, Milan, New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, Oslo, Tokyo, Cape Town, Joburg.
All this is experienced through the hypnotic designs of MaXhosa by Laduma, the global fashion brand that Nelson Mandela University alumnus Laduma Ngxokolo created in 2010 as a student in the School of Music, Art and Design (SoMAD). Six years later he was attributed with having created ‘the most beautiful object in South Africa’ at the 2016 Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town.
Today, he’s a wanted man, the world desires a part of him, and his international African brand is on an unstoppable flightpath. His inspiration is his Xhosa lineage, which is why he keeps on producing from South African soil.
An Mpondo descendant, he grew up in Kwadwesi, a predominantly Xhosa township in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, where he recognised the uniqueness of Xhosa culture, and embarked on his creative journey of reimagining traditional Xhosa design into 21st century, high-trend wear. This happens from his studio in downtown Joburg on the third floor of an industrial building alongside the Nelson Mandela Bridge connecting Braamfontein to Newtown.
“There is such beauty in this country. It hit me when I first saw traditional Xhosa beadwork from the 1800s. It spoke of what Africa is about – the traditional aesthetic, the pride, the flamboyance and extravagance. In Xhosa beadwork it is reflected in the way that colours are used, the patterns and the spacing between.”
What pleases him is that the African aesthetic is increasingly becoming globally appealing. “It is completely possible for us to compete with other global aesthetics, and to have African design up there on the global map,” he explains. “My team and I have worked hard to get to this level with my brand, and the pressure is huge to maintain our high standards, keep on top of our game and expand the platform for other top African brands.”
MaXhosa by Laduma personifies luxury and quality, and his collections are created by a core team of 30, including five master knitters working on industrial-scale machines, hand sewers, quality checkers, retailers, marketers and administrators.
“My team, which includes three of my siblings, works really hard at every level. You have to give your all to get somewhere, and young South Africans need to realise this. I haven’t got free time, I haven’t even got the time for a relationship so I’m single and my social life revolves around my work and my team; we mostly attend shows and exhibitions together, sometimes in different parts of the country, and that’s when we take a day off and make a weekend of it.’
Apart from the Eastern Cape, Durban, and specifically KwaMashu, is his favourite destination. “It’s interesting and unusual, I like the music, the dance and the culture there and I like the way that people present themselves,” says Laduma who listens to house music, it relaxes him while he works. Black Coffee and Heavy K are two of his favourites.
What stands out about Laduma, in addition to his talent, is his capacity for hard work: “When I was at the university I would work on my courses seven days a week, making sure I got my money’s worth, using the computers there and learning as much I could. Finance was very limited; I had a NSFAS loan and I lived at home with my late Mom who was a single parent,” he explains.
He regards #FeesMustFall and fee-free higher education for students from households with an income of below R350 000 per year as “a great evolution for the country that should have been implemented years ago.” He adds he is confident it will have a positive impact on black South African youth: “It all starts with resources, because with limited resources you can only do so much. Of course there are people who have achieved a lot with nothing but if we want to see substantive change amongst large numbers of students, then they need access to resources like transport or something to eat on a daily basis, or a budget to do their projects, or access to the internet.
“On top of this they have to work hard and think entrepreneurially because South Africa has such a high unemployment rate that students need to think ahead about starting something of their own. I think entrepreneurialism should be a compulsory subject for every university student irrespective of what they are studying.”
As a student, Laduma’s inspiration for his business was his mother. “My Mom was a knitwear designer in the eighties. I learnt from her and she was the main influence in everything that I do. Initially my range was all about survival as we had to make ends meet after my father left in 1990. Back then, it was difficult as a man to expose what I do, as there was a gender stigma about knitwear, but I needed to test my brand on myself and so I would fit the garments on myself and then wear them and see how people responded. Some people were surprised but far more people were supportive.”
Recognising the uniqueness of his work, in 2012 the university awarded Laduma the University Rising Star Award. The university also recognised that his Intellectual Property (IP) needed protection, and its Innovation Office filed design registrations for Laduma in 2011, which they transferred to him in 2015. The Innovation Office further helped him to develop his label through its entrepreneurial business incubator for the arts called the MAD Propella – a satellite of the university’s technology and business incubator, Propella.
Initially, MaXhosa garments were exclusively made from the Eastern Cape’s natural fibres – wool and mohair – but Laduma has since expanded into cotton, silk and printed polyester. “I don’t limit myself and I see myself ultimately building an African luxury group with other brands that are globally received and easy to commercialise, including Africa-inspired modern furniture and jewellery lines,” he explains.
He chose Joburg as the headquarters for MaXhosa by Laduma “because Joburg is the centre of Africa and my studio is part of a very creative downtown community that includes Braamfontein, Newtown and Maboneng. The diversity in Joburg is very important for my brand as it reflects South African culture in its fullest capacity and its one of the best cities in the world for entrepreneurs, it’s a city of opportunity.”
He adds that the vivid influences of many different African cultures are omnipresent in Joburg, all contributing to its character. “What excites me is that over the past eight years I’ve seen significant growth in the arts, music and design in the African diaspora and within Africa. I travel to other African countries more often than I ever did – I’ve been to Cameroon, Rwanda, Morocco, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria, Lesotho, amongst others, mostly to do group fashion shows.
“The feeling of being in other African countries is an amazing eye opener. Our infrastructure in South Africa is far better, our diversity is dynamic and we have access to outstanding universities, products, services, opportunities, lifestyles and entertainment. It makes me value being South African more than ever as you realise this is such a special country to live in.”