In a digital world fuelled by popular culture, the social landscape is changing faster than we ever thought possible. The days when Western celebrity culture informed and shaped the wants and desires of every nation is long gone, replaced by a more acute ownership of the uniqueness of individual cultures and beliefs, and a localised reinterpretation of what is considered “hot” and “fashionable” … This is the world of Rich Mnisi.
A graduate of the Leaders in the Science of Fashion (LISOF), designer Rich Mnisi’s keen interest in the world of pop culture has been a defining influence in his work. Whether it is music, film or art, and at times even nature, Mnisi is clearly immersed in the senses accompanying each, drawing from the multiple elements to inform his imagination. His designs remain young at heart and distinctively aspirational, balancing the synergy between heritage and futurism to tell the story of modern culture, while never forgetting to uphold the treasures ingrained in Africa.
In an interview with Business Day’s **Wanted** magazine, Mnisi traces his love for fashion back to his childhood. “Growing up, I was always in awe of my sister’s desire to outshine her friends. She looked at a pair of jeans and she saw a skirt; the way she reworked and altered her clothing was absolutely inspiring,” he explained. “She triggered my desire to play with clothes. At the age of five, I was also cutting up clothing, wrapping curtains around my body and cutting out clothes from magazines to dress up my paper dolls.”
That spirit for experimentation and the passion for what could be, has been nurtured and fuelled over the years, as evidenced by the unique aesthetic that Mnisi is today known and adored for. His work has a minimalist approach, despite at times being extreme, but he uses this juxtaposition effectively to promote the integrity of design. There is also a tremendous focus on craftsmanship, as evidenced by the effects of silhouette, layering, print and texture in his collections. More than anything, the vision is vividly contemporary, layered with the complexity of an artistic imagination and firmly rooted in the melting pot of localised pop culture.
When asked about the spirit of the South African aesthetic, the uniqueness of our city’s style, Mnisi describes a necessity to overdo everything and be overly present as the physical and local manifestation of Western pop culture. “If we are doing colour, we are wearing every colour possible. If we are doing glamour, then just a diamond earring won’t do – add pearls, stones and gold to the equation,” he explained in an interview with Between 10 and 5. “South Africa is fire, and more and more young people are configuring this system to fit their views on style and expression. It really is good time to present style wise. I love our excessive nature as Africans.”
It’s crystal clear that Mnisi actively taps into the vox populi when looking for inspiration, as embodied by the strong inclination towards non-binary looks in his work – a look that has less strictly defined masculine and feminine components. In fact, Mnisi is very well known for his androgynous aesthetic, and his runway shows especially have, in recent years, sparked many conversations about the fluidity of gender lines.
For Mnisi, it’s a simple principle rooted in the balance in both genders, and an exploration of liberation. “I think we’re trying to let go of defining the look that each gender is supposed to subscribe to, and instead offer options and redefine the wheel a bit,” he explained in the same interview. “That’s what trends do; they represent different people each season and open the mind to more diversity in style.”
This refreshing take on fashion has certainly been bearing fruit locally and internationally. Africa Fashion International declared Mnisi their Young Designer of the Year in 2014 – the same year that he started the eponymous brand – while his work has graced the editorial pages of multiple fashion publications such as Marie Claire, ELLE, GQ Style, VOGUE Italia, Chasseur, Dazed and Confused,
High Snobiety and Sunday Times. Mnisi was also one of but a handful of South African designers selected to create exclusive designs for fashion retailer, Woolworths’ excellent “Style By SA” capsule collection.
More recently, Mnisi has also made his furniture debut through a specially commissioned piece that formed part of a group show of multidisciplinary artists, all in celebration of Southern Guild’s decadelong journey of pioneering collective design in South Africa. Mnisi’s piece, consisting of a chaise and a stool, followed on his Nwa-mulamula collection from earlier this year, and is named after Mnisi’s late greatgrandmother. The pieces stand as a physical representation of Nwa-mulamula as the ever-present guardian, whose teachings live on through storytelling generation after generation.
“For me, the chaise, which takes the shape of Nwa-mulamula’s body in the form of a navy blue leather couch, presents her presence and long-lasting teachings, and the stool, in the shape of an eye with gold puddles, represents her tears, which were never in vain,” Mnisi explains. “Without her pain and her experiences I wouldn’t exist. I couldn’t be the person I am today.”