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.
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…’