I start the interview with Laduma Ngxokolo (28) by asking him what he thinks of a quote from the late great South African singer Miriam Makeba:
"The most popular of all the Zulu kings, Shaka Zulu, was a great warrior and mind. The British often referred to him as the black Napoleon but I say Napoleon was a white Shaka."
There’s a small silence as Laduma tries to figure out the link I’m trying to make between Zulu warfare and his latest knitwear range. He responds with the expected level of reverent praise for the Zulu King before swiftly turning the focus to his own tribal heritage – the great Xhosa nation. After all, it is from traditional Xhosa cultural and tribal symbolism that Laduma draws most of his influence as a fashion designer.
Hailed by some as the “African Missoni” his men’s knitwear range echoes the Italian brand’s colourful patterned bold form but his reference points are uniquely African. His inspiration stems from the renowned Xhosa beadwork patterns and the delicate tones of the Xhosa colour palette. In a video I found online of Laduma he singles out a dusty red in one of his designs, inspired by samp and beans, a traditional Xhosa recipe. His approach is not unlike a curious fashion anthropologist, into what he calls, “A magical world.”
Hailing from the small city of Port Elizabeth, Laduma was born into one of the most turbulent times in South African history – the 1980s. The city, nestled in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, was famous for its brazen anti-Apartheid activism. Speaking to Laduma, I feel the spirit of a true Eastern Cape citizen - bold determined and proud.
His late mother, Lindelwa Ngxokolo, herself a knitwear designer, introduced Laduma to a knitting machine as a young boy. A single mother, she made sure her kids attended art classes and encourage speaking other languages, including roping in West African friends to teach the kids French. In high school Laduma learnt textile design, “I was always an underachiever, I never got any awards in school,” he claims, which is hard to believe looking at his production-intensive techniques and impressive online presence.
Laduma’s big break came during his undergraduate years at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. In a nation-wide design competition Laduma came out on top and then headed for London for the finals where he competed on the global stage taking first place again. He counts this as his greatest career turning point. That prize led to an invitation to the Design Indaba conference one of the most critically acclaimed design conferences held in Cape Town every year. In July last year another big turning point came, a showcase of his 2013 range My Heritage My Inheritance in Paris. “It was one of my most overwhelming moments. My mom always wanted us to go to Paris. She was obsessed with Paris. I felt that I fulfilled her fantasy in a way, through me, whatever she desired as a young black women living in South African, it was done though me, that’s why I dedicated the collection to her,” he says.
Laduma now has his sights set on a textile masters degree at Central St Martins in London. Next month though he heads to our Northern shores with his older sister, also a fashion designer, to present at the What Design Can Do conference taking place on the 7, 8 and 9 May in Amsterdam. Laduma and his sister will be our guests during their visit to Amsterdam.
Laduma's full range can be viewed on his website.