LADUMA Ngxokolo was in his early teens when his mother, Lindelwa Ngxokolo, taught him to operate the knitting machine she used to make jerseys, beanies and scarves to sell to support the family. In addition to being creative and entrepreneurial, Ms Ngxokolo ran a traditional Xhosa home in their house in Port Elizabeth. And the bedtime stories she read and told Laduma and his sister, Tina, throughout their childhood celebrated the culture and history of the Xhosa people.
Even so, when, in June last year — 10 years after his mother’s death — Laduma presented his vibrant, Xhosa-proud 2013 knitwear collection at Labo Ethnik Fashion Week in Paris, he couldn’t quite believe that Ms Ngxokolo’s lessons and legacy had, in a sense, culminated in him living her dream.
“It was incredible,” he says. “I stood there remembering how it had been my mother’s fantasy, from the 1980s, to tour Cape Town and experience the fashion of Paris as a knitwear designer. She even asked some West Africans she met to teach her, my sister and I to speak French. Unfortunately, circumstances meant her dream never became reality. I stood in Paris at the show hoping she somehow knew that I was there because of her.”
In fact, Ngxokolo, who has won several local and international awards for his luxury MaXhosa knitwear since 2010, dedicated the 2013 collection shown in Paris to his mother. Named “My Heritage. My Inheritance”, the range, he explains, honours her and the Xhosa heritage she taught him. It is his thanks for the knitwear design skills and love for his culture he inherited from her.
But, while his mother certainly showed Ngxokolo how to knit his first stitches and nurtured his Xhosa-ness, his success is also due to several other influencers and factors, including the 28-year-old’s own energy, hard work and innate creativity. Among his earliest knitwear designs was a jersey he made for himself when he was initiated into manhood according to Xhosa tradition.
“Part of our tradition involves replacing clothes from our boyhood with new, more mature clothing,” he says.
“Aside from the fact that we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes, including jerseys, I felt that none of the commercial brands resembled anything Xhosa. So I created my own designs and made my own knitwear.”
Ngxokolo attended Lawson Brown High School in Port Elizabeth where teachers recognised and encouraged his flair for art and design. This, coupled with his budding knitting skills, earned him bursaries to study textile design and technology (BTech) at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University from Cape Wools SA and Mohair SA.
Among the projects Ngxokolo undertook as a student was the design of a knitwear range inspired by an exhibition of Xhosa beadwork held in Port Elizabeth to coincide with 2010 World Cup.
“I was fascinated by the exhibition. Long ago, Xhosa people — men and women — were flamboyant and wore a lot of beads. I spent ages looking at the beadwork, took pictures and read up more about Xhosa beads. Then I started looking at how I could modify the patterns used in beadwork and translate them to knitwear. It also meant dying wool and mohair myself because many of the colours were not available.”
The project coincided with the call for entries for a competition organised by the Society of Dyers and Colourists. Ngxokolo’s entry, a range of men’s knitwear titled The Colourful World of the Xhosa Culture, won the South African leg of the competition and then, sent on to London accompanied by the student, took the international prize.
The brightly coloured, elaborately designed knitwear attracted attention and, on his return, Ngxokolo was invited to exhibit at the Design Indaba in Cape Town in 2011.
Ngxokolo’s range was a hit at Design Indaba. He was nominated for the event’s Most Beautiful Object in SA Award and the Ikusasa Young Designer of the Year Award, was named 2011 Marie Claire Emerging Designer of the Year, and, within months, was featured in countless local and international fashion and design publications, including Wallpaper and Vogue.
“The response to my first range (an extension of the concept of the Xhosa initiates range he’d conceived years previously by incorporating designs inspired by the beadwork he’d seen in 2010) at Design Indaba in 2011 was incredible,” he says.
“I’d made everything for the event myself, including having custom-dyed the wool and mohair. Suddenly, the orders came in and I needed help to produce more product.”
He found it back home in Port Elizabeth by way of an Art And Design Incubator established by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
The incubator’s objective was to stimulate the establishment and growth of art and design manufacturing-based start-up companies and to increase the number of successful companies originating and developing in the Eastern Cape area.
It provided access to mentors, training, shared space, professional assistance and capital.
“Up until then, I’d focused entirely on design. I had no business experience. The incubator was a huge help and introduced me to Colin Shroder, who became my mentor and taught me many, many useful things. It was then that I established the brand MaXhosa by Laduma.”
Among the primary challenges Ngxokolo faced at that point was finding a manufacturer prepared to take on the production of his intricate designs and small volumes: “My range is aimed at the premium market. It is intricate compared to many other knitwear products and unusual in terms of design, colours and stitching. And the quality has to be excellent. It took me a while to find the right knitwear manufacturer to produce the range.”
These days, having flown the incubator nest, the MaXhosa by Laduma range (from both the Xhosa Initiates and My Heritage, My Inheritance series) is made by Vuya Fashions in Cape Town, where Ngxokolo now spends most of his time monitoring production and creating new designs.
He has exhibited in London, Paris, New York and Milan. And, while most of his sales happen at “African salon store” Merchants On Long, in Long Street, Cape Town, the range is listed with online stores like Scaapi in the Netherlands and Agnes Lola in London.
Ngxokolo also hopes to find a Johannesburg retailer to carry the ever-growing MaXhosa by Laduma range shortly. He recently added knitted bamboo socks, pillowcases and a mohair blanket/throw (made by Hinterveld) to the collection, and hopes to add knitwear for women too, shortly.
The Cape Town World Design Capital Task Team has showcased his designs both internationally at the International Design House Exhibition in Helsinki and locally at Cape Town International Airport. Moreover, MaXhosa by Laduma will be on show at the Museum of African Design in Maboneng as part of its Fashioning Africa exhibition, which takes place from March to May this year.
“It’s going to be a busy year,” he says. “I also hope to attend some important trade shows during the next 12 months. Also, I’m under pressure to create both a summer and an autumn/winter range this year. Hopefully, I can continue to do the kind of work that would have made my mother proud.”