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In honor of what would have been the conference’s 26th edition, here is a look back at some of the designers for whom the event was a launching pad.

By lindsay samson

Feb 19, 2021

Every February, people from all over the world descend upon South Africa’s tourist capital Cape Town for the annual three-day creative extravaganza known as Design Indaba. A cultural institution that has been going strong since its founding by South African businessman Ravi Naidoo in 1995 (and the site of many a creative’s breakout moment) 2021 marks the first time in the event’s 25 year history that it will not be taking place, a decision likely made due to the challenges presented by an ongoing global pandemic.

Despite its unexpected hiatus, we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate the event anyway. Read on to discover some of the designers who’ve left their stamp on the event and who continue to make notable waves in the industry.

emerging creatives

One of Design Indaba’s flagship initiatives, the Emerging Creatives programme is a developmental platform for young artists who have had relatively little industry exposure. Established in 2005, it epitomizes the organisation's belief in nurturing new creative talent and eliminating many of the barriers faced by young people getting a start in the creative economy. The talent the program has churned out over the years have gone on to accomplish impressive feats. Below are just a few of the designers that have used the program as a launchpad toward bigger things.


crystal birch

A member of the Emerging Creatives class of 2006, Cape Town-based milliner Crystal Birch has come a long way since her days at Design Indaba. Back then, her headwear line was in its infancy but the craftsmanship, humor, and experimental nature of the pieces she produces today were certainly present in those early designs. Fast forward fifteen years and Birch is co-owner of esteemed South African manufacturing company The Hat Factory where she and a team of dedicated artisan craft millinery in daring shapes and vibrant colors, each hat being an embodiment of their designer’s penchant for OTT embellishment and eccentricity. Birch remains a part of the Design Indaba family to this day, going on to produce a collectors edition of hats alongside accessories brand Pichulik that commemorated the event’s 25th anniversary, and forming part of a jury that curated the Emerging Creatives Class of 2020.

Thula Thula sun hat, Crystal Birch. Photo: via @therealcrystalbirch

Crystal Birch. Photo via: @therealcrystalbirch

Anas sun hat, Crystal Birch x Pichulik. Photo: Courtesy of Crystal Birch


Lukhanyo Mdingi

Selected as a participant for the Emerging Creatives Class of 2015, South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi had been making a name for himself even before then, having earned a place amongst the top seven finalists for Elle South Africa’s Rising Star Awards in 2013 while still a fashion student. After his participation in EC, he began an upward trajectory that hasn’t yet ceased, achieving a career milestone in 2019 when he debuted his AW’19 collection at New York Fashion Week. Speaking to Design Indaba that same year, he credited the program as a chance to introduce his label to the public, revealing that the contacts he made during that time are ones he still leans on today, advising those interested in participating to think long-term. “The reality is that some reap the benefits faster than others, but if you believe in the trajectory of your business then it’s important to always grasp onto that vision.

Purgation SS'17 Collection, Lukhanyo Mdingi. Photo: Kent Andreasen

Lukhanyo Mdingi. Photo: via Design Indaba

Taintless Collection, Lukhanyo Mdingi. Photo: Travys Owen via Design Indaba



Founded by Katherine-Mary Pichulik in 2013, South African jewelry and accessories brand Pichulik offers ethical jewelry pieces inspired by the traditions of cultures around the globe, and has become a favorite of some of the world’s most stylish (her pieces have been spotted on the likes of the Williams sisters and Solange). A member of Design Indaba’s Class of 2013, her piece s now regularly grace the pages of leading fashion magazines, their talismanic qualities and distinctly feminine aesthetic serving as a vehicle for the untold stories of African women. A striking display of color, craftsmanship, and innovation, Pichulik’s offbeat, maximalist designs feature materials sourced from all over Africa, the designer (who—fun fact—also happens to be a qualified pastry chef) using everything from semi-precious stones and recycled glass, to wax cotton and rope to bring her designs to life.

Samba Earrings, Pichulik. Photo via: @pichulikafrica

Katherine-Mary Pichulik. Photo via: @katherinemarypichulik

Noor Earrings, Pichulik. Photo: via @pichulikafrica


An initiative that Design Indaba began in 2007, the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa competition is an annual celebration of achievement in design. Each year, a host of industry experts and media personalities are invited to submit their nominees, after which voting is opened to the public. More than just an object of visual appeal, MBOISA encourages a wider definition of beauty—one that includes social significance, economic impact, and sustainability, and taps into the pulse of what’s happening in local design. Here are some of the past few years’ most fashion-forward winners.


Pebble Dress

by gavin rajah, 2013

Part of designer Gavin Rajah’s Spring/Summer 2013 couture collection, the South African Fashion OG’s striking Pebble Dress was named the Most Beautiful Object in the country that very same year. Crafted from ostrich skin leather moulded into pebble shapes and then embroidered onto mesh, the gold-toned creation’s scale-like appearance was created via a foiling technique reportedly pioneered by Rajah’s design studio. Handmade in accordance with the traditions of couture, the garment is a strikingly tactile creation that exudes pure elegance.


Lilypad Ring

by kirsten goss, 2012

A hand crafted ring featuring a green amethyst nestled within two contrasting layers of yellow gold, South African fine jewelry designer Kirsten Goss’ Lily-Pad Ring took home the top honors in 2012. A design that’s become the brand’s signature ever since it was voted the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa, it’s a delicate yet head turning piece that embodies Goss’ contemporary design aesthetic and love for abstract shapes. Crafted by an in-house team of goldsmiths, the ring is a boundary-pushing artistic statement that’s still immensely wearable.


MaXhosa Shawl

by Laduma Ngxokolo, 2016

Famous for his Xhosa-inspired knitwear, Laduma Ngxokolo’s MaXhosa Shawl was unveiled as 2016’s Most Beautiful Object, the versatile piece intended as both a wardrobe and a homeware accessory. Designed in Ngxokolo’s signature style, the piece is a unisex piece made from 80% wool and 20% mohair, traditional Xhosa embellishment styles and beadwork motifs peppering the piece in a pattern inspired by the textures of ripe umnqusho (a traditional Xhosa dish). Designed as a part of Ngxokolo’s Autumn/Winter ’16 collection, the shawl is a celebration of the rich heritage of the Xhosa culture.

Pebble Dress, Gavin Rajah. Photo: via Design Indaba

Lily-Pad ring, Kirsten Goss. Photo: via @kirsten___goss

MaXhosa Shawl, Laduma Ngxokolo styled by Asanda Sizani. Photo: Trevor Stuurman