A beau­ti­ful pair of shoes with a strong de­sign el­e­ment does more than fin­ish a look – it starts a con­ver­sa­tion. Maria McCloy is one to watch.

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Andile Nkosi

De­signer Maria McCloy’s shoes are hit­ting our pa­tri­otic genes hard

Maria McCloy may just be the def­i­ni­tion of the African Re­nais­sance woman – she’s al­most al­ways busy, with her time split be­tween three solid ca­reers. But more than that, her ‘African­ness’ is the in­spi­ra­tion for her work. She’s in­spired by the cul­tural di­ver­sity of her mother’s home coun­try, but tran­scends south­ern Africa, draw­ing from the en­tire con­ti­nent.

Given her back­ground, it seems only nat­u­ral that this would be her ap­proach. Born in the UK to an English fa­ther and a Mosotho mother, Maria spent her child­hood liv­ing in mul­ti­ple African coun­tries, in­clud­ing Nige­ria, Su­dan, Mozam­bique and Le­sotho, be­fore mov­ing to South Africa in 1989 at the age of 12.

She showed signs of a strong creative streak at an early age. ‘We are born what we are and don’t change much,’ Maria says. ‘When I was 10, my dad took me to buy my first watch, and I re­mem­ber hav­ing to pull a bunch of ban­gles off; at that point I was also mak­ing my own ear­rings. On cam­pus, I wore African print and beads. What I loved then, I love now.’

Maria’s work ethic was also ev­i­dent from the get-go: she started her first busi­ness be­fore com­plet­ing var­sity. To­wards the end of her jour­nal­ism and pol­i­tics de­gree at Rhodes Univer­sity, she co-founded a pro­duc­tion com­pany, Black Rage Pro­duc­tions, with two friends. It was geared to­wards cre­at­ing con­tent cen­tred on ur­ban cul­ture, and op­er­ated be­tween 1995 and 2009. She then shifted her fo­cus to pub­lic re­la­tions in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, with clients that in­clude Bongo Maf­fin singer Than­diswa Mazwai. She also did the pub­lic­ity for jazz leg­end Hugh Masekela’s TV show, and in­ter­na­tional mu­si­cians Toni Brax­ton and Baby­face when they toured SA in 2015.

But the multi-tal­ented Maria has a flair for de­sign too, which is ev­i­dent in her Yeoville apart­ment. She’s dec­o­rated it with artis­tic pieces col­lected from her trav­els around the world. She’s es­pe­cially fond of vin­tage, and the pieces that caught her eye have been sourced all over Jo­han­nes­burg. A prized pos­ses­sion is a framed dress her mother knit­ted for her as a child. And of course, there are sev­eral ref­er­ences to Ba­sotho tribal blan­kets too.

Of course, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore Maria’s cre­ativ­ity stretched be­yond her liv­ing space. She be­gan her de­sign brand with a jew­ellery col­lec­tion in 2007, af­ter the women around her showed in­ter­est in her unique, cus­tom-made adorn­ments. ‘I was home in Maseru and I met David Makoae, who was mak­ing amaz­ing ear­rings. I gave him some ideas, wire and beads, and he added his awe­some skill and cre­ativ­ity. I came back to Jo­han­nes­burg and all my staff and the stylish women in the city wanted them.’

She thrives on the fast pace of a city that al­lows for creative ex­pres­sion. ‘Jo­han­nes­burg is a make-it-hap­pen city’ – it’s al­lowed me to be so many things. Peo­ple from all around the world are here, ex­plod­ing with en­trepreneur­ship and cre­ativ­ity, and I love watch­ing, and be­ing part of that. This con­ti­nent has an amaz­ing past and present in cul­ture and mu­sic, and that will al­ways be an un­end­ing well of in­spi­ra­tion.’ Be­cause of her strong sense of pan-African­ism, Maria en­sures that she trades with African artists and de­sign­ers, giv­ing them the op­por­tu­nity to tell their sto­ries.

‘Colo­nial­ism and apartheid made us hate our­selves; African cul­ture was de­monised and these wounds and scars are deep. It hurts that peo­ple see the African cul­tural aes­thetic as some­thing just for wed­dings and Her­itage Day. My brand ad­vo­cates the African mes­sage: “if we don’t use it, we will lose it”. We’re al­ready see­ing in­ter­na­tional de­sign houses steal­ing our aes­thetic and we don’t ben­e­fit – so let’s be proud, and wear lo­cal de­sign in­spired by Africa every day. It would be great to see it be­ing em­braced at school, in the board­room, at the club and on cat­walks – there’s so much

African in­spi­ra­tion to play with.’

2011 was a piv­otal year for her brand, says Maria. ‘I was part of the pub­lic­ity team at MTV Base, and was won­der­ing what I could make for the me­dia pre­view of a Con­golese movie. I thought: “Let me make clutches out of African print!” It com­bined my life­long love of African print and my ob­ses­sion with col­lect­ing vin­tage bags. I found a sup­plier and made 15 clutches for the me­dia. Peo­ple loved them! In 2011, no one on the Jozi scene was sell­ing African-print clutches, neck­laces and shoes. I was the first, then every­one else fol­lowed. It’s nice to see every­one so into print; it’s ev­ery­where. 2012 saw me take the cloth prin­ci­ple into shoes: not every­one is a clutch per­son, but every­one is a shoe per­son!’

Ini­tially, Maria bought shoes from shops like Jet and Mr Price, and con­tracted some­one to cover the shoes in the cloth. She then found two men in down­town Jo­han­nes­burg to make pumps and booties from scratch. A year later, she found a fac­tory in Joburg that man­u­fac­tured high­qual­ity shoes from any ma­te­rial. And when Wool­worths con­tacted her in 2016, she’d just found a Dur­ban fac­tory that al­lowed her to scale up suf­fi­ciently to make the or­der, and to make fac­tory qual­ity fe­male shoes for the first time. For Maria, it’s im­por­tant to pro­duce in South Africa. But she also says it’s hard. ‘It would be eas­ier and cheaper to pro­duce in the East, but I want my con­ti­nent to win and my col­lab­o­ra­tors to win with me.’

She was se­lected as one of eight South African de­sign­ers to take part in the Wool­worths an­nual Style by SA col­lec­tion, which show­cased at South African Fash­ion Week, by far her great­est achieve­ment, she says. The op­por­tu­nity has taken Maria from mar­kets to main­stream.

Nav­i­gat­ing the fash­ion in­dus­try can be daunt­ing, but prob­a­bly less so when you have vet­eran pi­o­neers steer­ing you in the right di­rec­tion; Maria says she sought ad­vice on sur­viv­ing in the busi­ness from de­sign­ers like Thula Sindi and Mar­i­anne Fassler.

And she’s feel­ing the love, both at home and abroad: her In­sta­gram and Twit­ter feeds reach more than 30 000 and 20 000 peo­ple re­spec­tively. ‘I’ll con­tinue to sell off In­sta­gram, Face­book and my site too. I’ve re­ceived a lot of in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est through those plat­forms; I even fea­tured in GQ Style. Well­known celebri­ties like Lupita Ny­ong’o and Michael B Jor­dan have asked for pairs, and Ji­denna loves the shoes.’

Her work has been fea­tured on CNN and the Chi­nese News Network. In 2016 she cu­rated the Jo­han­nes­burg sec­tion of The Fash­ion Cities Africa ex­hi­bi­tion at The Brighton Mu­seum in the UK, and this month, the ex­hi­bi­tion will show at the Tropen­mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam.

Maria hopes to make her mark on the fash­ion in­dus­try and have her brand ac­ces­si­ble on a global scale. For now though, Wool­worths is launch­ing the new col­lec­tion of her shoes this month. ‘I want to be avail­able all over South Africa, Africa and the world…’

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