Lukhanyo Mdingi’s career within the fierce fashion industry as been a remarkable tale of pursuit, from his NYFW debut in 2019 to being crowned a joint winner of the 2021 LVMH Karl Lagerfeld Prize. In 2015, South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi founded his eponymous label which was inspired by his upbringing and the care takers within the community that shaped his existence. Since its inception, Mdingi has created a formidable brand that is centred on building a bridge between heritage and timeless fashion pieces.
In the wake of Lukhanyo Mdingi’s A/W 2022 collection Bodyland, which marked the label’s Paris Fashion Week debut, we caught up with the designer to learn more about the premise behind this season’s presentation.
What was the inspiration behind the collection ?
To be quite honest as the label has progressed the inspiration behind each collection is nuanced from the previous. I think for us as a label and a fashion business we try to use design and entrepreneurship as a way to create a positive change whether it’s through service or social impact.
For the longest time, the way that we have chosen to design is based on working with marginalised groups that have an extraordinary amount of finesse within craft development — particularly in textile creation. For this season specifically, we had been working with a community based in Burkina Faso for the past two years. We really wanted to expand on that and show people that these are the key fabrics we had an opportunity to work with. We wanted people to see the ability of these extraordinary textiles living in a contemporary way.
By inviting one of the head weavers [Saranique] to our showcase, it allowed people to understand the provenance of the ‘making’ and that was incredibility important to me. I wanted people to recognise that what we are doing with the label is quite layered. It has little to do with just the clothes but has more to do with the human relationships behind the making of these clothes.
Essentially thats all it comes down to.
The title of your collection Bodyland, could you explain the inspiration behind it ?
For the last two years I have been a witness to an extraordinary artist by the name of Athi Patra, and I have always admired what he does. He has essentially created a residency called Bodyland [Incubator] that is a space for young emerging artists to develop their craft, develop their skill, develop their artistry and for them to essentially reach their potential.
Paying attention to his movement had really ignited something with in me. I thought that the name Bodyland and what it embodies. It itself was incredibly inspiring and the movement echos the core values of what Bodyland is all about.
I believed it was a name that was quite nuanced to the some of the experiences that have inspired me for such a long time.
In an 2021 interview you did with lifestyle Asia, you mention how the inspiration before your collection is often very personal and how it stems from a feeling or a vision you’ve had. Was the inspiration behind this collection personal to you ?
It’s always personal. At the that end of the day, I recognise that my design persona is formed by those that I work with, so it’s always very personal. It is important for me to recognise that what I’m creating with those that I’m collaborating with stems from something that’s based on a pursuit and lives far beyond the end product, but also in the process and what could unfold from that.
I’m moving based off of how I was brought up: I was brought up in a community, in a full house. I moved through a collective, not a singular. That was something that has always been sentimental within my childhood and the foundation of my life and I think that sentiment is woven into the fabric of my DNA. That reflects on how I choose to practice design and entrepreneurship.
We could immediately tell that there was a complex narrative behind the presentation. Within the composition of the showcase: the drapery and the feature of the artisan weaving right in the centre of the gallery space created a visually layered experience. Tell us about the thought process behind the way in which the collection was presented ?
The foundation had been cemented in terms of the incredible opportunity I had to go to Burkina Faso to really immerse myself with a specific community and to meet the craftswoman behind the making of these extraordinary textiles. I think what happened within the trip was something that truly ignited me and I really wanted to expand on that journey in a way that felt more tangible.
The best way that I knew how to really introduce this craftsmanship on an international platform, such a Paris Fashion Week, was to try make people understand the provenance of where that relationship stems from. I thought it would be really incredible to collaborate with a creative director that was based in Paris, who would understand the vision and the foundation that I had in mind — expanding the story in a way that was still contemporary but also relatable.
My entire team really elevated the idea that I had in mind. Expanding in a way that essentially become this beautiful gallery space that was draped with fabric made in Burkina Faso. I think people were able to see the connection of it it all through the clothes, to the drapery, through to its ‘making’. It was really important for [the audience] to have key connections in the presentation as a whole.
The showcase of Bodyland A/W 22 was the label’s debut at Paris Fashion Week, what did that moment symbolise for your and your team ?
I mean it’s so important. I recognise my fruition in terms of being a successful designer and in terms of a young black man. I understand that this is significant for reasons far beyond myself and the team that I worked with.
This moment was also for a young, gay, black boy from the Eastern Cape, coming from a small town and looking for some sort representation that looks exactly like him.
Sustainability forms a large part of the label’s perception. Can you trace the moment where you decided to put sustainable practices at the core of your brand ?
The term of sustainability is a term that has actually been put onto our label, and I can understand why. But to be one hundred percent sustainability is something that is incredibly difficult.
For us, we always tend to use key words such as pursuit and attentive mindfulness in order to essentially reach where we envision ourselves to be.
We are not necessarily claiming that we are one hundred percent sustainable because we are not. But what we are saying is that with each new collection the idea is to work with those that have been there from the beginning, that have dedicated their time, talent and trust as a means of service to us and for us to see how we can steadily grow together. Not just through the development of making textiles but also through the whole aspect of business, creativity, art direction and everything that falls in-between.
A quality that South Africans designers and craftsmen/woman have mastered is the skill of story telling. Outside of branding, how do you transcribe a story into tangible items such as garments ?
I mean that’s.. that’s a really good question.
We’ve been quite steady with our story telling and the reason being is because we’ve always known that there are human beings behind the ‘making’. In order for us to really push that story, we have to solidify terms of trust with those we are working with first. It makes no sense for us to work with different communities and tell their story without establishing that trust because then it would not be a partnership.
Seeing as something like that has been established, that’s when we can steadily start telling the story of how the foundation of who we are is woven into the fabric of the garments that you see in front of you today.
For example, we released a story sometime last year with an incredible designer named Stephanie Bentum but essentially we have been working with Stephanie for four years before that story has been published. It’s because we needed those four years to truly solidify that working relationship and to also see how the dynamics between her and myself are like. It is a long term journey and trajectory that we have committed ourselves to, in order for us to really cement these stories.
Are we allowed to ask what’s next for the label after achieving such monumental milestones ?
I mean I don’t know how the label will grow. Three years ago I didn’t know that we would reach this point and I can’t speak on what’s going to happen three years from talking to you right now.
I believe in our narrative, I believe in the intention of what we do and I also believe that it will just naturally unfold in the way that it’s supposed to. So who knows what’s next — But what I can tell you is that we are going to continuously move in a way that makes sense to us, moving as a collective and not necessarily a singular.