Lukhanyo Mdingi’s Spirit of Abundance
South Africa native Lukhanyo Mdingi started his namesake fashion label in 2015, growing a creative universe dedicated to human relationships ever since. Lukhanyo is focused on building the brand on strong foundations with the support of the Ethical Fashion Initiative and Net-a-Porter mentorship programmes. His achievements in mindful business practices have been recognised with the 2021 LVMH Karl Lagerfeld Prize signalling the industry’s encouragement of conscious approaches to growing fashion brands.
We discuss the importance of love and patience in establishing purposeful fashion companies and contemplate what it means to be a multi-disciplinary creative.
Advance Copy: Lukhanyo, thank you for joining us from Cape Town. Congratulations on your collaboration with Net-a-Porter on their global mentorship program, The Vanguard, and your collections are now also available on SSENSE. These are really exciting partnerships, when did these changes start to happen?
Lukhanyo Mdingi: I think it all began on day one of starting the label. Each moment and each passing day matters and especially if you’re moving in a way that makes sense to what you envision for yourself as an entrepreneur, as a designer, a teacher, a student and everything in between. Everything that we’ve done so far has led us to this point of having these amazing opportunities that have unfolded for us and it’s simply being prepared to meet these moments. My movements are always quite steady and I’m really grateful to have a strong community of individuals that have contributed so much of themselves to making the label what it is today. It’s been a rollercoaster but I think with anything that matters in life it’s the best of times, the most interesting and challenging of times. But I’m on the right track and I love every moment of it.
“Love and consideration are not spoken enough of in our industry.”
AC: Do you mind telling us about yourself and your childhood years?
Lukhanyo: I’m a young black Xhosa man that’s born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa with a single mum. I grew up in a household with many kids who were essentially my siblings. The household was five to six kids, my mum, my aunts and my grandmother. There was a spirit of abundance and sharing and that’s always been something that’s lived inside of me. I come from a small coastal town in South Africa, called East London. It’s a wholesome little town but with the kind of endeavours that I envisioned for myself, I knew that I wanted to be in a place where I could reach my fullest potential. Leaving East London and coming to Cape Town set the trajectory that I’m on now. But I’m glad that I came from a small town and experienced the love and the kind of upbringing that I experienced. My grandmother more than anything else was such an incredible force, instilling a sense of faith, community and love. It really helped to shape who I am today. There is a kind of understanding, calmness, sensibility and patience within myself. I love human beings and I love love. I don’t necessarily mean it in that romantic sense, I love the spirit of human beings respecting one another and being on the rollercoaster of this thing called the human experience.
AC: I think it’s still taboo to talk about love, care or compassion – especially in an industry like fashion. These words are the foundation of life and so important to our work but are considered unattractive.
Lukhanyo: My biggest strength is my vulnerability but it’s also my weakness. But my vulnerability comes with loving people. Love and consideration are not spoken enough of in our industry or just having that kind of sincerity and a mindful approach to those you are working with. Honouring those you work with and also honouring yourself. If you are a creator those sentiments get woven into the fabric of what you’re creating.
“I wanted to create something that’s based on purpose, on an intention and on being of service.”
AC: Can you tell us about your podcast The Premise and what it’s aiming to explore?
Lukhanyo: We engage with key topics that are part of the whole human experience whether it’s letting go, love, fear, gratitude, intuition, intention. At the beginning of 2020, Elizabeth Thebus and I decided to do a weekly journal where we would choose different topics that relate to the human experience. That extended onto jealousy, family, money and things that we felt we had a relationship to. I felt like it was so powerful and important and wanted to bring it into the cosmology of the label, to use the label to introduce this practice and to engage with individuals. I knew that having a podcast added a different layer to the language of Lukhanyo Mdingi and I also wanted it to be a lot more communal. The Premise gives space for you to tell your truth and for human beings to realise that we are more alike than different. I asked key individuals to be part of this project, friends and people who’ve inspired me [who] have so much to share but might have not had the platform to share it. The best thing about this podcast is that there is a timelessness to it. You mentioned that I’m a fashion designer, when I first started at the age of twenty-two I did identify myself as a fashion designer and I pertained myself to just that one thing and it was amazing. But as I grew my movements started to grow and I wanted to create something that’s based on purpose, on an intention and on being of service. I had studied design and I wanted that to be the vessel to do these things and to see how different layers of LM coexist.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the human relationships that I’m trying to solidify within this whole process.”
AC: How would you describe the context of your work and collections?
Lukhanyo: The foundation of our label stems from collaboration with key individuals that have used their time, talent and trust as a means of service to us. There’s a hybrid of artisanal craft as well as a sense of modern refinement. The refinement comes from focusing on essentials, on styles that are in their purest form – items that are accompanying pieces of your everyday closet. And hopefully will be a part of your everyday closet for quite a lengthy span of time. The artisanal aspect comes through the hands, the human ingenuity, the sincerity and the honesty. We’re in a privileged position where we’ve had the opportunity to work with textile designers that literally use their hands to create the most incredible textiles. Whether it’s felting, weaving or using other techniques that make sense with who they are as artists, craftsmen and women. They have contributed so much to the brand’s DNA. The idea is to create a beautiful hybrid of the two and see how they can meet in the most sublime way that we know how. Having these collaborations, whether it’s with Stephanie Bentum or with the women of Philani in Cape Town or CABES GIE in Burkina Faso, there is a certain kind of sentiment that we feel because things that are made by the human hand add mindfulness and sincerity to what you’re trying to create. It’s been seven years of pruning and solidifying relationships with people who have contributed to our spirit. The idea is to move at a steady pace that makes sense with how and what we envision for our label. I’ve wanted to cement the relationships before even telling the story because the relationship is between human beings, and what we have together. And the story comes from what we can bring to the table. I think the foundation of that relationship is more important than anything else: solidifying the trust and the rhythm that we have between ourselves and those we are working with. It’s only then that we can start slowly documenting and telling the story to its fullest potential because there’s a lot more security within the relationship that has been formed. Now being part of Net-a-Porter, SSENSE and Merchants on Long, key retailers that have invested in the label and have given it a platform to have worldwide distribution, has allowed us to make the marriage between business and design work but also to have global accessibility which is something that we’ve always wanted and was hard to get. It’s important for our audience to have access to our label and to work more with those we’ve had the opportunity to work with so they can grow with us.
AC: Your approach to relationships is so admirable and it’s inspiring to hear that your documentation process is fully starting now after seven years of hard graft and commitment to people. Fashion relies so heavily on storytelling but the speed at which it’s generated can feel very generic and quantity rather than quality focused.
Lukhanyo: Of course there is pressure to document and to archive and we do that but we haven’t presented it just yet because I want that trust and I want to be trusted. And you also have to realise that sometimes, particularly with Philani and also CABES, these are groups that come from marginalised backgrounds. We are trying to establish trust and see if the relationship also makes sense for us. Because as much finesse, craft and amazing talents as these communities have they are also human beings and our flow needs to make sense with one another. The label’s now in a position where there is more visibility and one would think that there is more pressure but I don’t necessarily want to sway away from how we’ve moved. I want to be steady, this is a long term thing and a human thing for us. I don’t want to lose sight of the human relationships that I’m trying to solidify within this whole process.
AC: You’ve touched upon the artisanal aspect of your production, I’d also like to find out about the seasonality side. How often do you present collections and are you comfortable with that rhythm?
Lukhanyo: We do two seasons a year. There have been years when we just did one season but it all mattered. But now I’m on the crest of making the marriage between business and design work in a way that I envision for the label and we will definitely be doing two seasons a year. I also have a lot more confidence within the business side of things to approach it better and with more consideration. Having retailers that are supporting the label makes me want to reach for more in terms of running it as a sustainable and profitable business. It hasn’t been an easy ride to know what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, especially with no background and coming from where I come from. But I needed to make all the mistakes that had happened and get up again to be prepared for all of these amazing opportunities that have unfolded right before my eyes within 2021.
AC: How did you start the Lukhanyo Mdingi label?
Lukhanyo: I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer, I’ve always wanted to be in design. As I grew older I realised that the fashion industry had more careers apart from just design and I became quite curious about that. Over four years, I interned for a designer, for magazines, a stylist, a photographer and in retail. I wanted to immerse myself in what was available within my country. I thought I would finish college, save a little money and have a gap year but opportunities present themselves in front of you and one thing leads to another. I had presented my final year collection at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2014 and there was a fashion scout who produced a lot of fashion shows throughout Africa. In February of 2015, they produced the first menswear fashion week in the whole of Africa which was called SA Menswear Week. I was invited to that and the rest is history.