African Renaissance Designs celebrates the aesthetic traditions of the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swati tribes. Head designer of the brand and Design Indaba 2020 emerging creative Siphelele Ntombela studied textile design at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth where he learnt to work with the silk-like wool from angora goats characteristic of the Karoo in the Eastern Cape. Using mohair as his signature material, Siphelele spins luxury fashion garments that show a deep respect for African heritage.
Renaissance refers to a rebirth, a revival. Why did you name your brand African Renaissance Designs? My designs tell African stories to inspire people to embrace their African heritage. I want to protect our African heritages from slowly fading away.
When and where are you most creative? When I’m home in Ladysmith in front of my computer creating technical drawings.
Who are your design inspirations? Laduma Ngxokolo, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Lidewij Edelkoort and Virgil Abloh. South African designers, Laduma and Lukhanyo inspire me to be authentic and embrace my heritage. Lidewij’s trend forecasting keeps me updated on trends and colour palettes. Virgil Abloh’s unique garment construction has inspired me to think out of the box. And, I am always inspired by different cultures and global history.
What has inspired the colours and the patterns in your work? I usually use earthy colours which are inspired by traditional attires from mostly South Africa cultures and I add one colour that will make my designs pop.
What influences from western culture do you blend with your African references? I blend elements from South African cultures with influences from garments worn by western people from the 1700s to the modern times.
Do you think fashion can eliminate divisions whether it be cultural, racial, ethnic, religious in our society? I think so, for example my new collection Nguni Collection AW 20 tackles tribalism and cultural divisions between the Nguni tribes, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swati. These tribes lived peacefully together before there was conflict and war and they share similar customs and traditions. Through fashion I’m reminding these tribes of what we share by creating garments that represent every ethnic group. I hope to unite them by celebrating their similarities.
What was the first thing you did to invest in your business? Production equipment so I can design and construct the designs myself.
What materials do you use and why? I use mostly mohair, a luxury fibre, which is durable and resilient. Mohair is naturally elastic, flame and crease resistant and dyes well. It feels warm in winter as it has excellent insulating properties while cooling in summer due to its moisture wicking properties.
What is your idea of the perfectly sustainable garment? It is a garment made from eco-friendly and recyclable materials. Sustainability in design means using materials that don’t negatively impact the environment. Also using renewable resources that will minimally impact the environment. Sustainability in design is important for the future, by using the earth’s resources responsibly we might have a better future ahead for generations to come.
Is your manufacturing process environmentally and socially sustainable? Yes, we are environmentally sustainable. My local suppliers and processors in the Eastern Cape adhere to strict rules as to the detergents used in both the scouring, combing and dyeing processes. Both SAMIL Natural Fibres and Stucken Group are OEKO-TEX certified which means their products do not contain substances that are hazardous to people or the environment. In addition to this they have made significant investments in their water effluent systems to extract solids and then utilise the water for irrigation. Socially, the biggest threat is reduced production due to lack of raw materials partially caused by the recent drought. This has put job security at risk. Otherwise our suppliers adhere to the basic conditions of employment and empower workers through training where possible. It is also important to note that the industry provides employment both to skilled artisans as well us unskilled workers providing employment in some of the poorest areas in the Eastern Cape.
Is the packaging sustainable? Yes, I use paper packaging which is recyclable.
What challenges do you face as a designer? The main challenges are brand exposure, pricing and meeting demand. It’s hard to be recognised in the industry when I don’t have resources to travel to shows around South Africa and abroad, and to set up pop-up shops at relevant events. I use very expensive material which means my prices are high. Usually customers interested in my designs can’t afford the prices. Lastly, meeting demand has been challenging because I’m the only one in production. If there are a lot of orders I’ll have to outsource.
What are you doing to protect your business against coronavirus? The best thing to do right now during the Covid-19 is to use social media to stay relevant and be innovative. I’m very excited with the shift happening in fashion. I’ve been preparing for this digital future for quite some time. I think we are about to see some very innovative ideas in the fashion and textile industry. Local businesses must look into future trends and customer behaviours to understand the future consumer. Pay close attention to demographics since demographics will be very important moving forward. Lastly, be unique.
If you weren’t a fashion designer, what do you think you would be doing now? I’d be a history teacher.
Where are your garments sold? My designs are sold through orders via email. The online store will be up soon.
The images throughout this article showcase Siphelele’s AW20 collection.
Photo Credits AW20 Collection: Thembelihle Menziwa @lihlemenziwa
Models: @jadejasminpaul, @nathi_weenie (Inganathi Mzikathole)