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South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s premium knitwear brand brought a dose of hope and a dash of verve to the virtual event.

By Lindsay Samson

Sept 24, 2020

This past Wednesday 16 September, MaXhosa, the lauded South African knitwear line by designer Laduma Ngxokolo, made their second appearance on the official calendar at New York Fashion Week (their first showing was in 2019) with a mesmerising, virtual runway presentation streamed live on Youtube that delivered on the fronts of expected artistry, finesse, and flair. Against a backdrop of the brand’s range of rugs and homeware, models strode down the runway with youthful vigor in clashing colors and patterns, logo-emblazoned knit crop tops, crew-neck wool dresses, and summer hats.  One of a small cluster of African brands participating this year (including Ghanaian label Studio 189, whose founders appeared in an online panel in addition to hosting a small physical presentation in collaboration with Fashion For Our Future, an NY-based youth voter mobilization group ), MaXhosa’s show was a marked departure from the softer tones of their SS‘20 collection.

Photo: MaXhosa SS‘21 at NYFW. Courtesy of MaXhosa

 Their runway burned bright this year with geometric patterns and luxe woven separates in vivid hues of scarlet red, cobalt blue, dandelion yellow, and tiger orange, modelled by local South African celebrities, including rapper Riky Rick, actors Warren Masemola and Maps Maponyane, Miss South Africa 2019 Zozibini Tunzi, and DJ Unathi, who strutted triumphantly down the catwalk to the rhythmic sounds of Black Motion and Ami Faku.

Though their success may seem meteoric to international audiences, the MaXhosa brand’s rise to fixture on the global fashion stage has been a steady, paced road peppered with discrete milestones. The past few years have seen the brand grace the pages of international publications such as British Vogue, being worn by major international megastars including Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, and claiming the inaugural, Scouting for Africa from Vogue Italia (a prestigious award programme that offers a wide-reaching platform for creatives from the continent) in 2015. What began as Ngxokolo’s creative response to the lack of traditional, locally produced knitwear for Xhosa initiates (part of a traditional ritual undergone by young Xhosa men as an initiation into ‘manhood’) has since grown into a highly desirable heritage fashion & lifestyle brand; one that is deeply rooted in Xhosa history and culture. And though 2020 has proven a challenging year for most, the MaXhosa brand seems to have evaded many of the year’s pandemic-related tribulations, continuing to flourish on a journey that has taken them from the dream-come-true opening of a flagship store in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront to this, their sophomore appearance at NYFW.

Ngxokolo named his SS‘21 collection ‘Ingumangaliso Imisebenzi KaThixo’ (which translates from the isiXhosa to God’s work is so wonderful that we don’t even acknowledge how powerful it is) after a song by the designer’s late grandfather who was a renowned jazz artist and choral music composer, as well as an actor and visual artist. Teeming with garments rendered from Ngxokolo’s beloved fabrics of mohair, merino wool, and silk, skillfully fashioned into a ready-to-wear range, the vivid coloring and bold prints of the collection prove equally striking whether worn together or as separates. The collection shows off a polished athleisure-meets-elegance feel, while clashing fabrics and prints communicates a certain innate playfulness. For Ngxokolo his collections are a means through which he is trying to communicate a message of hope in the midst of such uncertain times. “During lockdown, in the midst of sadness, I felt like it’s very important to give people hope with my craft. I love color and wanted to showcase happiness, so people would feel excited about summer and show that happiness is the new luxury,” Ngxokolo tells The Plug. “This collection is the most colourful and exotic collection I’ve designed to date,” he continues. “My objective was to bring about a new dawn and excitement about the upcoming local [South African] summer season, considering that, despite the global pandemic we have to endure, we have to be hopeful about reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“My objective was to bring about a new dawn and excitement about the upcoming local [South African] summer season, considering that, despite the global pandemic we have to endure, we have to be hopeful about reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Photo: MaXhosa SS‘21 at NYFW. Courtesy of MaXhosa

Photo: MaXhosa SS‘21 at NYFW. Courtesy of MaXhosa

Photo: MaXhosa SS‘21 at NYFW. Courtesy of MaXhosa

Having bought his own factory in 2019, Ngxokolo is now in complete control of MaXhosa’s production process, something that becomes clearly evident in the unapologetic self-expression in his designs. His creations for MaXhosa are as much an exploration of his heritage as they are an expression of his own innate ability, and the range shown at NYFW draws from traditional Xhosa beadwork to subtly refine tried-and-true patterns and imagine new ones, premiering fresh takes on some of the brand’s staples, including double-breasted blazers with matching trousers in a print depicting planes and planets, short-sleeve knit tops, and midi skirts. Ngxokolo’s enthusiasm for nostalgia and heritage exists with a certain element of levity as evidenced by his collaboration with, of all entities, a rice brand. It’s not just any rice, however; look closely and you’ll see the brand’s nod to Tastic—a brand of rice that many South Africans grew up eating—in the form of tote bags featuring the iconic insignia. These bags are emblematic of just how uniquely MaXhosa articulates his deep insight into history and culture.

Make no mistake, MaXhosa’s 2020 return to NYFW signals more than his first appearance did: it confirms what 2019 proposed, that the brand and its designer are a force to be reckoned with, one with true staying power, boundless potential and a fresh perspective. More than anything though, MaXhosa is Ngxokolo’s assertion of the value of tradition, his own way of creating meaningful art and maintaining a connection to the past. Craft, he says, is his form of cultural preservation.