South African knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo started out as “one to watch” in the year 2012 but has turned into a pacesetter within the luxury apparel space in recent years. A space that reaches beyond his native South Africa, as proven last year in a legal dispute between the Maxhosa founder and fast-fashion retailer Zara.
“What happened was that I was here (Johannesburg) and started receiving DMs from New York and London,” the designer tells me when we meet inside his new Johannesburg headquarters. “Two clients of mine sent pictures of socks at Zara and asked if I had collaborated with them. I started receiving more messages, and consulted with my lawyers.” The socks in question featured a design similar to that of Ngxokolo’s signature product range, referencing the traditional beadworks by South Africa’s Xhosa people. “They (Zara) removed the product from their websites and stores worldwide. They cooperated and were submissive,” the designer says who belongs to the Xhosa ethnic group himself.
“Cultural appropriation” are the buzzwords of the day within the context of contemporary fashion, pop culture, and entertainment. The Oxford dictionary describes it as “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The Zara-Maxhosa case could arguably function as a prime example. Nonetheless, throwing the accusation of cultural appropriation at the Spanish retailer wasn’t what ensured the Xhosa entrepreneur had a foot to stand on. Protecting his designs did. “I was fortunate that even as a student I had been advised to protect my design, and how to register for copyright with my material,” the Nelson Mandela University textile design and technology graduate says. “In protecting intellectual property, it requires one to be educated around the laws centered on the creative space. In South Africa there are various entities who specialize in intellectual property law.”
The year 2019 promises to be a big one for the Xhosa ambassador who currently designs apparel, bedding, beach towels, and furniture through his company. “For 2019 I envision more expansion. Especially in the interior space there is more to explore, and in terms of wholesale, there will be more expansion. Only now I feel we are ready to work with a showroom so we can guarantee on-schedule delivery, a good product, with a good price. Over the years it has happened that we’d say we’ll deliver January first, and the product would only arrive by March – that kills careers,” the Port Elizabeth native comments who recently acquired the factory – and absorbed its employees – he previously outsourced manufacturing to. “We had to invest smart, cause outsourcing production was a headache. At times it even meant we had to compromise on quality and sizing, plus everything else that had to do with the product.”
Four years ago – the year Ngxokolo marks as the year in which the commercial uptake of his brand started – the Maxhosa founder shifted focus from wholesale to his flagship store at Johannesburg’s Newton Junction Mall. He added another location last year, inside the city’s Mall of Africa. “Through the flagship store vehicle, we are able to curate our brand and do it justice. Our profit margins are more – of course, the overhead costs are high – but the profits make it worth it. Our stores stock the full range so we can give customers the best variety, and that’s the ultimate luxury,” the creative says, whose late mother worked as a knitwear designer in the Eighties.
At present the Maxhosa product range averages around R4000 ($300 at current exchange rate). Atelier pieces, for clients that want bespoke design, cost around $2300.
“In South Africa people know about the Xhosa, but they don’t know enough. So wherever we go we talk about the Xhosa, and educate people on the brand as well. Cause when you’re charging a certain amount you have to explain why, so people don’t feel as though you’re trying to class them out of owning the product. Overseas we don’t have to explain pricing as much. We explain it’s wool produced in South Africa with a certain inspiration in mind. We tell locals about the manufacturing process and how the majority of the value chain – almost 100 percent – is touched by South African hands. This adds value to the South African economy and preserves South African heritage. We make sure we mention those key points to them so they see value in buying, and I must say the returns have been exceeding our expectations. I ultimately do it for the next generation, my family, job creation, and our people.”