Lukhanyo Mdingi, the 23-year-old fashion designer whose stunning lookbooks have the internet utterly enamored, is perhaps the most humble fashion designer I've ever interviewed. For one, he reverentially praises his three collaborators (photographer Travys Owen, stylist and art director Gabrielle Kannemeyer, and make up artist Amori Birch) in nearly every answer. "To be honest, it's been the most fulfilling and humbling experience to have been positioned with creatives in South African that are far beyond their time," he tells me over email. "These three have enriched me in so many ways."
Born in a small coastal town called East London, Mdingi has a deep, abiding love for South Africa. "I see it as one of those places where kids were kids and the outdoor was our playground," Mdingi says. "Being outside in nature allowed me and other kids to explore and appreciate the true beauties of my country." Mdingi has lived in Cape Town since graduating: first, with a National Diploma in fashion design, and then with a BTech degree from Cape Peninsula University of Technology. It was at school that he first introduced his "Iridescence" collection, which was The FADER's first glimpse into Mdingi's unique approach to lookbooks.
Finding like-minded creatives is especially difficult in a country whose fashion landscape is heavily commercial, but Mdingi has armed himself with a team of brilliant creatives and is set on not only building his brand, but reinvigorating the South African scene. "I believe that people have this misconception about African design in general," Mdingi says. "It's as though the world has hindered African aesthetic to tribal prints and color, and I feel as though Africa has so much more to offer. I want the world to know that Africa has magnitude of different cultures, mixed races, and traditions that have merged together in one way or the other." Awareness of the challenges South African designers and creatives face pushes Mdingi to succeed "in order to contribute to change." Here's how he's doing it.
Never underestimate the power of a collective
Collaboration, Mdingi says, is the most vital ingredient in creating these arresting images. Mdingi's lookbooks are the cumulative effort of a small, informal collective that includes photographer Travys Owen ("there hasn't been a project that he's worked on that hasn't taken the viewers breath away"), stylist and art director Gabrielle Kannemeyer ("A true visionary and artist. Her ideas are out of this world, with a dreamlike, surreal quality), and makeup artist Amori Birch ("A lot of South African make up artists never get to challenge themselves because of the constant commercial shoots, she's a godsend to us").
Follow your instincts, not gender conventions
Mdingi's minimalist designs often bleed beyond the prescribed boundaries of gender conventions. "Even though I have positioned myself as a menswear designer, I prefer designing what instantly comes first to me," Mdingi explains. "I have a pure love for fashion design and the process will never be necessarily boxed to one specification."
Models shouldn't be an afterthought
Mdingi says that Travys and Gabrielle both devote large chunks of time to selecting a model. He also praises Travys' ability to organically direct and motivate the faces of his lookbooks. "The models play a huge part in the shoots!"
Don't neglect logistics
Mdingi emphasizes the importance of planning, both before and after you showcase your collection. "It's a difficult process, but so fulfilling and beautiful," he explains. "It's vital that you have a plan to produce selected pieces of your collection. Before any showcase make sure that you have deadlines as well as a structured planning system to meet those dates. Make sure that the textiles are available for sampling and for sales. Marketing is essential in order to give the public a taste. There will be a lot of tiny little factors that pop up unexpectedly, but trust me, it's all worth it."
Textiles say more than you think
Mdingi is hyped on materials."Ah!" he says. "I have this deep love for weaves and upholstery fabrics. You have to be very selective and strategic when choosing them because initially they're made for furnitures, not necessarily for garments. I feel as though that they have this sense of luxury and feel, they ooze sophistication, it's important to find textiles that will embody the qualities of your brand."
Think critically about the pre-existing market
The designer admits that his unusual aesthetic is sometimes at odds with his country's commercial landscape. "South Africa comes from a culture where conservatives are comfortable with commercial brands that are being sold in retail stores. There definitely is a large gap between those that produce high and low end fashion; it's a lot trickier for the high end designers. Finding a market that can afford your price point can be very tricky. The correct positioning is extremely important."
Don't be afraid to invest
Mdingi admits that it costs a lot of money to create a quality lookbook, but argues that overhead feels like less of a factor when you're working with like-minded creatives "who understand each other's circumstances." He adds, "We are here to create stories that will benefit all of us and that is only achievable because we trust one another."
Aim to inspire
Mdingi writes, "It's important to make a powerful contribution to South African fashion industry, not just creating beautiful clothes but empowering and inspiring the public to support and invest in South Africa's local design talent. Because of the trials a lot of creatives face in South Africa, it's vital to produce work that will build out an industry that's very difficult to break into."