I first met Laduma Ngxokolo five years ago on Women’s Day at his stand at Decorex, a decor, design and lifestyle exhibition in Johannesburg. I remember being struck by his openness, humility and his extraordinary talent. I described him at the time as one of South Africa’s up-and-coming-close-to-arriving fashion industry talents. This year 2016, he has not only decidedly arrived but is most certainly on the ascendant – his dramatic black and white patterned shawl having won the coveted Design Object of the Year Award at the 2016 Design Indaba in Cape Town last month.
He was also recently commissioned by Chivas Regal to design the limited edition packaging for its 18 Year Old Scotch Whiskey, joining the likes of Vivien Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Ashish N Soni, who have designed for the whiskey makers in previous years. This is the first time that a South African designer has been approached – double the kudos for Laduma and Maxhosa.
Since the establishment of Maxhosa by Laduma, Laduma’s designs have featured in high-profile fashion media across the globe, and have been worn by glamorous fashionistas from Newtown and Hyde Park in Johannesburg to London, Paris, Milan and New York. He has also collected a number of international awards, including the 2011 Marie Claire Prix De Excelence Best Emerging Designer Award, the 2014 Africa Fashion International Emerging Designer of the Year Award and the 2015 Vogue Italia Scouting for Africa Prize.
Laduma’s men’s knitwear, sold under the Maxhosa brand, reflects the traditional Xhosa beadwork patterns with a distinct vintage touch – drawn originally from the 50’s covers of Drum magazine, when urban Black artistry fused with sophistry, before being crushed by the forced removals as Apartheid had its way.
Laduma’s roots are humble and echo millions of others in South Africa. He grew up without a father and his mother supported the family by knitting jerseys for the community – a skill she imparted to her son. She also insisted that they attend good schools within Port Elizabeth itself. The resultant interaction with children of all races and backgrounds enabled him to appreciate multicultural input. Born in Port Elizabeth in 1986, he grew up in the Kwadwesi township, the second oldest of four children – a brother and two sisters – all of whom are today involved in the global business that is Maxhosa. As there was no television, his mother would entertain the family with traditional folk tales and moral stories. These foundations in his Xhosa heritage were later to be taken up in his work.
“I feel compelled to preserve my Xhosa roots in my work and designs,” Laduma says. “My culture and heritage are immeasurably valuable to me, so I wanted to initially create knitwear suitable for the amakrwala (Xhosa initiates) to wear, but which was also contemporary and stylish.”
“I feel extremely honoured as there are more than a hundred thousand designs being created yearly in South Africa and having mine singled out is the greatest honour of all,” Mr Ngxokolo commented after being awarded the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa award.
Laduma studied a Btech at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, during which time his flair for knitwear saw him receive a bursary from both Cape Wools SA and Mohair SA. While there, he entered his uniquely African designs into the Society of Dyers and Colourists Design Competition, christening it The Colourful World of the Xhosa Culture and won the South African leg of the competition. He was flown to London where he was also crowned the international winner – no mean feat considering he faced submissions from enormously capable design students from over 10 countries.
All of Laduma’s raw materials are locally sourced from the Eastern Cape, his home province. He uses a blend of 80% wool and 20% mohair to create a traditional product of premium quality; one that is objectively luxurious, versatile, but also created with a social conscience.
In all his designs, the X motif features prominently, a strong signal of his Xhosa identity and heritage.
“The X motif is very meaningful to me,” he shares. “I love the distinctive Xhosa sound. It’s interpreted from traditional Xhosa beadwork dating back to the late 19th century, which I’ve translated into a more modern design.”
“Social entrepreneurship is the most meaningful form of business,” he says. “It gives the businessman the opportunity to uplift and create pride within his community. Often, I am invited to speak at conferences, and this allows me a platform to celebrate South Africa’s culture and heritage.”
Commenting on Chivas Regal’s decision to approach Laduma in the design of the Limited Edition packaging, Shelley Reeves, Marketing Manager: Scotch Whiskies at Chivas Regal South Africa said: “Not only is Laduma a brilliant authentic designer, he conducts all his interactions with integrity and respect. It’s this chivalric resolve to win the right way, that we admire.”
Laduma’s design for the limited edition 18 Year Old packaging is strikingly and unapologetically South African: gold Xs rest on a vivid blue background, communicating Ngxokolo’s strong brand identity. The back story to the Chivas Regal collaboration is wonderfully told by Laduma on Maxhosa’s blog.
“The X motif is very meaningful to me,” he shares. “I love the distinctive Xhosa sound. It’s also interpreted from traditional Xhosa beadwork dating back to the late 19th century, which I’ve translated into a more modern design.”
Looking to the future, Laduma says he’s not about to rest on his brightly patterned laurels; he’s just getting started: “This year I’ve received much international interest from places as far afield as Japan. I have two pieces on display in New York’s Smithsonian, and I’m currently considering opening my own factory in South Africa. My ultimate goal, though, is to establish Maxhosa by Laduma as a lifestyle brand.
“I’m never satisfied with the present; the future and how I can change it for the better is my focus.” This is indeed an artist to watch!