The British Council’s Connect ZA programme supports connections between young people in South Africa and the UK, with a series of projects that make use of digital platforms in order to build networks of emerging creative talent in music, film, visual art and design. One such project is MERGE ZA, a travelling showroom, which brings the best South African designers & contemporary fashion culture to the UK. The showroom facilitates relationships and collaborations with buyers, designers, creatives, the media and academia.
LCF News popped over to the launch of MERGE ZA, which took place at Tank Magazine’s gallery space, to check out the work of Lukhanyo Mdingi, who earlier this year showcased his work at the British Council’s International Fashion Showcase (IFS). We spoke to Lukhanyo about his AW16 collection and what he had been up to since IFS.
What have you been up to since displaying your work at the International Fashion Showcase?
Production, operations and the collection here. I think as an emerging designer, you do so many different things – you’re not just a fashion designer. So, I’ve just been focusing on the foundation of growing the business.
What is the inspiration behind your AW16 collection? What is it about?
The collection is inspired by African iconography and I really wanted to tap into art history and look at different print works to see how I could translate that into something contemporary and also something that is true to the Mdingi label.
It is all supposed to be very sensual and romantic and I think the way that the fabric, the pleating, the silhouettes and the prints, all coexist seamlessly, happened quite organically.
What has been your experience as emerging talent from South Africa? And how has the British council supported you?
To be honest, it is really amazing – I think the industry as a fashion designer is hard in all parts of the world so the support has been great. I think our industry is relentless but also revealing. It’s a personal journey as well as one where you have to navigate with others and communicate with people that are outside your particular environment, like customers so it is quite a process but I think any fashion designer would say that if you’re born to do it then you will do it.
What I’m trying to do right now with the label is really trying to use it as a tool to activate, not just to create clothes but to activate an awareness of what South African Fashion is like and also communicate its history and what it is currently. And that’s every aspect, whether it be through celebrating fashion or through presenting the issues we face. It’s all really important to me. I’m all about constantly evolving and making sure that you are true to the intention of everything.
What do you think the challenges are to a designer like yourself, coming from outside of the UK and trying to break into the international market?
It really depends on what kind of designer you are. I mean, just looking at the group of designers we have here at Merge today, you can see there is a lot of diversity. We all have different clients and audiences that we want to interact with so, I think all of our struggles will differ. For my label, the struggle is trying to produce ethically and I want to be as transparent as possible with my clients about how the pieces are produced. I also want to have more knowledge about where the textiles are from. I think it is very important that designers today have an understanding of the history behind the materials they choose – it’s the foundation for the clothes we create. It is also vital that this information is readily available to the media and the public. These are the kinds of things I’m focusing on now but it isn’t easy because the label is young and there are so many obstacles to overcome. We are constantly trying to navigate those obstacles.
Brexit will undoubtedly have an impact on the fashion industry. Although you are not based in Europe, can you give us your views on how you think it might impact the industry and your business? Do you think Brexit will create opportunities for new collaborations with non-EU countries?
It is really up to the designer and the company as well as who you are liaising with. Are retailers open to designers outside of the UK? because from my understanding and from being here in the UK for the past couple of days, I’ve seen so many different types of retailers but a lot of them are big players, fast fashion outlets. How many stores are really available for independent designers? And for the stores that are out there celebrating independent designers, how many of those will look even further, to designers outside of the UK? I think there are logistics that come into play on perhaps why they might not be approaching designers that are outside of their immediate environment. One of which is lack of immediacy. Or maybe, issues lie with the designers themselves – it isn’t so cut and dry, there’s a lot of paperwork that you have to do along with operational requirements. It is definitely something that both parties would have to navigate together.
Why is it important for LCF to engage with South Africa’s new generation of designers?
I think it is important for everyone, to have a good sense of not just south African designers but Africa of as a whole because it is such as remarkable continent. There is such interesting and authentic content that is being produced in Africa. There are beautiful stories, fascinating histories behind work and incredible contemporary interpretations of those histories. I think if we use our mediums as a tool to polarize the world in terms of informing people, I think it will be really great for LCF to see what we are doing so that information can be translated and dispersed. Collaboration and learning from each other is very important. I want to learn about things that are outside of Africa and hopefully people from outside of Africa want to learn about what’s going on in Africa.