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Sindiso Khumalo uses fashion to tell stories of women’s empowerment and global sheroes

by | Feb 18, 2021

Sindiso Khumalo is not just a LVMH finalist. An unofficial family historian, textile designer and social activist, she represents the social possibilities which can be opened up through fashion. And now, as the (joint) recipient of one of the fashion industry’s highest accolades, her mission for black women by black women will take on an even more illustrious future. From an initial start in architecture to a career spanning continents, concepts and a myriad collaborators, Sindiso is the embodiment of the Trans-seasonal Award which she was awarded at the 2019 Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards.

As documented in her fascinating profile in American Vogue, the brand Sindiso Khumalo was in many respects an ode to her family’s past. Raised by an anti-apartheid activist and influenced by a grandmother well versed in pattern cutting and samples; it is no surprise that Sindiso was able to bring together the political and the aesthetic so clearly. It could be said that many artists draw from their heritage in their work, but Sindiso has taken it a step further. Consistently working with local artisans in Burkina Faso, South Africa and elsewhere, she has, in the tradition of other African designers, given voice and life to sometimes ‘forgotten’ techniques and fabrications.

The eponymous label, which was launched in 2015, has gone on to do much more than the Central St Martins graduate probably initially imagined. In addition to success in shows and runways, her heart for the social world continues to open new avenues. Added to partnerships with IKEA, Vodacom, the Smithsonian in Washington, and the Museum of Modern Art in Denmark; Sindiso also works with the United Nations’ Ethical Fashion Initiative. As opposed to a do-gooder notch on her belt, this initiative has folded seamlessly into her grassroots praxis, and allowed her to continue her work with local women artisans in Africa – further archiving, reimagining and bringing to light the deep legacy of Africa’s diverse fashion landscape. In Cape Town she collaborates with Embrace Dignity, an organisation that helps women out of sex work by teaching them valuable skills like hand embroidery and crochet. Sindiso told Business of Fashion, “What I’m interested in researching and communicating are stories around female empowerment and female sheroes. It’s more important to me to communicate conversations [around gender-based violence] than the fact that the hemline was on the knee.”

Even in the midst of COVID-10, Sindiso’s work continues to gain recognition. She was named Best Independent Designer at the Green Carpet Fashion awards in October last year. Speaking to WWD about the esteemed accolade, she shared her sustainability ethos, which stretches well beyond ‘greenwashing’ and seeks to change the lives of marginalised people, who are equally as important as our efforts towards serving the natural world.

“I just don’t believe you can just buy loads of organic cotton and be a sustainable designer. I feel like you’ve got to do lots more work than that,” she added. “We have to understand that it can’t just be about materials. It has to be about your value chain. It has to be about people.”

This is not just lip service. It is clear that all of Sindiso’s social and environmental goals come together in her remarkable garments. Characterised by her signature hand painted and illustrated motifs, she communicates softness and sophistication all at once. Heavily influenced by the style of South African black women in the 80s and in her latest collection, inspired heavily by abolitionist leader and civil rights icon Harriet Tubman, Sindiso blends her own penchant for the vintage, a great deal of respect with women’s history, and an understanding of the way textiles look and feel on different women; her clothes are easily identifiable – often harking back to forgotten techniques and fabrications. There is a real sense, in the tradition of other African giants like IAMISIGO and Orange Culture, of wanting to make something that lasts – and that says something important about the hands that made it.

SS21 collection

Description from Instagram @SindisoKhumalo: “Based on our muse, Harriet Tubman and speaks to her childhood, named after her childhood name “Minty”. The collection features beautiful hand illustrations of the plants Harriet would have encountered as a child, namely the cotton plant, and the Philadelphia Fleabane. Beautifully illustrated by Cape Town artist Shakil Solanki.

Some have asked me “Why Harriet and why now?” Essentially, I feel that we have to look at historical events and figures in order to understand our present. Violence against black women has been in existence since Harriet Tubman’s time and still exists today with Uyinene Mrwetyana in South Africa, Breonna Taylor in the United States and the Chibok school girls from Nigeria who were stolen by Boko Haram.
These events are all linked, and the violence is still rife.

What I try to do with my collections is to pay homage to women like Harriet Tubman and to all women who have been victims of gender based violence.

Shot in Philadelphia, Cape Town, it tells the story of a young girl walking freely through the land. As women, we deserve to walk freely through any landscape, or place without fear. We deserve to go to a post office, to be in our home or go to school, without fear of rape, kidnapping and death. This video is reclaiming the land, that we should be walking freely in… Here is the digital presentation, for Milan Fashion Week SS21.”

Film Credits

Director : @jonathan_kope
Model : @nina.henry
Hair and Make Up : @suaad_jeppie
Styling : @githancoopoo
Music Composer: @okzharp
Creative Director: Sindiso Khumalo

Notes

  • This article first appeared in the Twyg Awards zine. 
  • Sindiso features in the short film produced by Cyril Naicker, sponsored by lMDA and filmed by Abigael Thompson for the UN panel discussion: “Sustainable Fashion for All: Examining the Industry through the lens of Social Justice”. You can register here. Sustainable Fashion for All[2]
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