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Changemaker winner 2021: The Herd carves out space for beading in the fashion world

by | Dec 7, 2021

A fashion accessory brand took home both the Nicholas Coutts and the Changemaker presented by Country Road awards at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 2021. Founded and directed by Mbali Mthethwa, The Herd is inspired by the beadwork of Nguni women and creates accessories rich in storytelling.

“The Herd, for me, was a clear winner this year,” says jury member, Kelly Fung. The Nicholas Coutts Award and Changemaker Award recognise a South African designer or brand that has made an impact in their chosen craft, and on the industry as a whole. Kelly says that Mbali has anchored her brand in tradition, culture and heritage, nodding to the practice and labour-intensive art of beadwork. “Not only has Mbali created pieces that capture the energy of the craft in the most beautiful (and relevant) way, she has also been a driving force in the appreciation of the history of the practice, drawing our attention to its meaning and cultural significance,” says Kelly.

Growing up in East Johannesburg, an urbanised and largely westernised city, Mbali says she never felt fully connected to her Zulu culture. She says, “My love for African traditional craft making, craft preservation, community development and design resulted in me launching The Herd three years ago”. Through The Herd, Mbali connects herself, and others, to the practices of her culture. She achieves this through an act of decolonisation: carving out space for beading in the fashion world.

Dr Erica de Greef, co-founder of African Institute of Fashion Research and a member of the Research Collective for Decoloniality and Fashion says that “fashion as an institution has over the last two centuries, progressively and consistently excluded, disavowed, eradicated, and denied the existence and growth of other fashion systems”. The Herd, says Erica, “makes visible, and makes possible, that which has been continually silenced, underrated and not supported”.

With the influx of glass beads by European traders in the eighteenth century, beadwork rich in symbolism and meaning created for specific people and specific occasions become part of African culture. The Herd uses Nguni cultural symbols, from the Zulu, Swati and Ndebele tribes. Certain shapes carry significance and meaning which is interwoven throughout the collections. Beadwork could signify whether a woman is married or not, or represent the position a man has within a community. Squares and rectangles are associated with trust, tradition and fairness and the circle symbolises harmony, conveying power, energy and love. While there are well accepted symbols, such as red signifying love, meaning is only ever truly known by the maker.

 

The Herd uses locally-sourced glass beads, and 100% nylon Miyuki thread for durability and strength. The process of beading is mathematical and requires precision and accuracy. Similar to weaving fabric, the beading involves wefts (crossing of thread) and warps (longitudinal or lengthwise).

Dr Puleng Segalo, a professor of psychology at the University of South Africa who specialises in the role of embroidery and craft in African cultures, says, “The cultural meanings of beads is often ignored, or rather, relegated to the periphery. Yet, beading plays a significant role in indigenous knowledge systems,” Puleng says. She notes that beading is more than just beauty, “it’s a connection to history”. Beading creates a space to memorialise, reflect and tell stories. In this way, Puleng says, “the intergenerational nature of craft in families and communities forms a connection within African cultures. Being a collective practice, the work itself brings communities and women together.”

Erica notes that The Herd not only gives visibility to the crafters through their work, but also creates an enabling and empowering environment for them to be more involved in decision-making processes and to give their voices a platform in the conversations of change within the design sector.

Mbali’s education in Community Development and Leadership from the University of Johannesburg, has helped her develop sustainable strategies to eradicate poverty. Women in marginalised communities in the Mpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Natal region are given the materials and designs of the products, after which they decide on their own fees for their labour. The Herd ensures these women have regular incomes, and, through the growth of consumer demand, an undermined craft becomes a tool for empowerment.

Twyg Sustainable Fashion South AfricaMavis Maka working on a piece commissioned by Nike in KwaMhlanaga, Mpumalanga 

 

Mbali’s designs are inspired by dreams. “If we are not dreaming we are not creating,” she says. “The inspiration is a spiritual one – it’s guided by something bigger than us.”

Over the next year, The Herd will continue to foster an environment which sustains as well as benefits local communities. The prize of R100 000 from Country Road, R10 000 from the Coutts family, an accelerator programme with Plain Tiger and an assessment by EcoStandard South Africa will accelerate The Herd’s journey to achieve its sustainability efforts, both in their production process and in the community of craftswomen. In particular, Mbali hopes to expand and improve every stage of its value chain and its shift to a people-centred approach of production and management.

Kelly says, “Mbali’s talent is offering us work that is rooted in the past, but we’ll want to wear proudly into the future. And that, is sustainability.”

Country Road’s Elouise Brink with Mbali Mthethwa of The Herd  at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 2021

 

  • Follow The Herd on Instagram
  • Images of beading and beadwork supplied and images of the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards were taken by Pang Isaac @_pangphotography_
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