The Cultural Exchange Agent
Iwas nothing more than a frumpy teenager when my mother decided, one random winter’s day, that my father and I both needed new jerseys. This decision was not made in a collaborative manner or as part of a consultative process, and she had already settled on a simple, inoffensive, and utterly nondescript cardigan from an affordable chain store. As such, my father and I promptly became cardigan owners: a black one for me, and a navy blue one for him.
It really was nothing special, but for some reason I literally wore mine down to its last threads. My father, who didn’t have a typical office job at the time and was always up and about during the day, running around in short sleeves, had less love for his version, and happily handed his barely-worn version over to me when mine was laid to rest. More than two decades later, I still have that seemingly immortal cardigan – albeit with more holes, and a few brightly coloured threads of wool here and there to keep the whole thing together.
Every year, when winter comes out to play and I decide not to leave home, my faithful cardigan also makes an appearance. I believe that there is something inherently magical about knitwear. Whether it’s a generic item from a chain store like my cardigan, a beautifully crafted designer piece, or even that weirdly shaped, chunky jersey created with love by a relative, there are few items of clothing that can wrap one in as much warmth, comfort and nostalgia than a trusty jersey.
There is value in simple designs of a single colour when it comes to knitwear. Ultimately, knitwear provides as much opportunity for expression as any other piece of clothing – just think of how the English have embraced wacky Christmas-themed jerseys, for example. And when knitwear moves beyond the purely functional, it becomes a means of storytelling.
It’s this storytelling that defines the globally lauded, locally designed Maxhosa brand of knitwear. The Maxhosa by Laduma brand was started in 2010 by Laduma Ngxokolo with the aim of creating garments that would be suitable for amakrwala, young Xhosa initiates. The Xhosa nation, one of the dominant ethic groups in South Africa, is steeped in heritage and tradition, which is why the amakrwala must dress up in dignified new formal clothing for six months after their initiation into manhood.
Ngxokolo – who has been through this experience himself – felt that he had to develop “premium” knitwear that celebrates the traditional Xhosa culture and aesthetics. As part of his process, he explored traditional Xhosa beadwork patterns and considered the varied symbolism and colours of his nation, soon realising that it was just the inspiration he was looking for. Using only South African wool and mohair, Ngxokolo set to work on his designs – and has never looked back.
While completely inspired by his Xhosa heritage, the Maxhosa brand has been embraced by South Africans and global citizens alike, with fans – and customers – from as far afield as London, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, Berlin and New York. He was awarded the 2014 Wetransfer Scholarship to study for a Master’s Degree in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins in London, and graduated in 2016. As a student he won the 2015 Vogue Italia Scouting for Africa prize to showcase his collections at the Palazzo Morando Show in Milan, Italy.
Since launching his brand in 2010, not a year has gone by in which Ngxokolo has not been awarded for his work, with highlights including the 2011 Marie Claire Prix De Excellence, Best Emerging Designer Award, the 2016 Design Indaba Most Beautiful Object in South Africa Award and, most recently, the 2017 Pride of Africa award at Africa Fashion Week Barcelona. To crown it all, he was also named the Most Stylish Designer at the 2016 SA Style Awards.
With most of his collections, Ngxokolo aims to express the beauty in cultural exchange, specifically between the dress codes of Western and Xhosa cultures. It’s a design process that gives his clothing longevity, as his designs are not driven by fashion per se, but by “a more utopian African feel that will stand the test of time”. In a time when cultural appropriation is a hot topic, Ngxokolo approaches it with positivity to make bold statements showing how sophisticated, modern and authentic cultural displays can combine.
The global recognition already started in 2016 when two of Maxhosa’s looks were displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in
New York City, where it caught the eye of international superstar Beyoncé. Inspired by the work, Beyoncé commended Ngxokolo on her website – much to the delight of her fans and South Africans everywhere. This year, Maxhosa also made its debut on the red carpet when Ngxokolo had the opportunity to dress actors John and Atandwa Kani. Proud Xhosa men, the father and son duo proudly reflected their regal roles in the movie Black Panther by wearing beautiful Maxhosa by Laduma shawls.
Ngxokolo describes himself as an agent of change, “shifting and evolving with the changing times and further engaging in dialogue that pushes Xhosa culture to the future”. To achieve this, the brand tells little stories about this culture throughout its website. One such story – as the opener to the fantastic range of Maxhosa socks – is how the Xhosa people believe that your feet could carry you to occasions you never anticipated you’d appear in. (The concept is directly translated in Xhosa as “Unyawo alunampumlo”.)
Like the socks, Ngxokolo’s collections for both men and women are bold in concept and vivid in colour. Each collection tells a story, deeply rooted in his own life experiences, but respectful of Xhosa culture, and ultimately timeless and fashionable. There’s also a small, yet striking collection of rugs that will add warmth and colour to any house.
In an age where there are few topics more pertinent than Black Excellence, Ngxokolo is a visionary for pursuing and promoting the excellence of his own culture before it became the subject du jour. His multiple awards over the past few years speaks volumes about his own beliefs in excellence and how his message resonates with his audience, and the global recognition is only set to grow.