A couple draped themselves on scooters, others stood in threes, sporting Mdingi’s irresistibly attractive layered variations of trouser suits, fine-gauge and hand-knits, dresses, pleated skirts, and sportswear—all of it singing together in a perfectly-pitched visual chorus of lavender, turquoise, ochre, yellow, brown, and grass green.
Mdingi was circulating, speaking about his collection, its provenances, and the hard-working collective culture that has seen South Africa’s phenomenal rise as an on-point epicenter of young fashion creativity. “I’ve realized that we move through community, and we move through sharing,” he smiled. “I think that’s just something that’s within our blood.”
What Mdingi achieves in showing is how the arts, crafts, and techniques of African artisans can play a central role in elevating today’s upper-level contemporary designer fashion. He named this collection Burkina, in honor of the CABES Textile Community in Burkina Faso he’s been working with during the pandemic and was running a documentary about the community of weavers and dyers who produce a large part of the collection.
As an example, he reached for a group of striped lavender and silvery thread pieces—a slouchy man’s suit and a ruched sleeveless dress. “So, this is a blend of pure organic cotton and metal thread. I worked with them to get the exact Pantone colors—and that intense orange workwear over there,” he explained. “There’s so much sincerity that is literally woven within the fabric. It really is a collaboration, and I rely on their ingenuity. It’s important that I show that there’s a sense of authority in what they achieve. This is how it should be: really understanding how they can add their expertise, to see how they can tighten the design and really make it a lot stronger. I want to overcome those misunderstandings that people sometimes have about craft.”
Close-up, his clothes are refined, light, soft, and subtly styled—an eminently wearable wardrobe of knitted polo shirts, baby-fine mohair hand knits, double-layered shorts, and tailoring. His signatures— stripes; his outstanding mixed-media fringed, woven, and knitted stoles; his graphic-contrast sweater—are established sellers on Net-a-Porter and at Selfridges. The relatability of his work is a key plank of his mission. He’s in the business to sell, and for good reason: sales success feeds back to pay the artisans, mostly women . “There’s a strong social impact in that. As I’ve gotten older, I’m at a stage where I want to recognize that, and ask how can I use what I do to be purposeful and of service? And I think the best way to do that is through working with these communities.”
Mdingi talks as if he’s an old hand—it might seem that way to a designer who’s been steadily building his brand between Cape Town and European and American fashion markets since 2015. But in reality, that’s a very few years in which to have created such a mature yet completely fresh and youthful brand—and with such attention to ethics woven into it. He’s a finalist in next week’s Andam Prize. Everything he showed demonstrated exactly what a deserving winner he’d be.