Lukhanyo Mdingi balances their design approach through continually striking a distilled balance between the ethereal and rational – the poetic and functional – and RELIC, the collection, is no exception. The most utilised methodology for designers is to chose an era for reference from which to draw inspiration, whether it be texture and fabric, silhouettes or simply the mood of the moment; this approach provides a neat framework within which to narrow down the process to a minimised interpretation — allowing them to create and play within culturally established spaces. RELIC is aptly named as a collection that is created to stand the test of time and defy such a methodology, by invoking timelessness; the notion that Mdingi’s work can exist beyond the confines of space and time, beyond physicality and toward universality. It is a nod to the past; a vision for the future but most importantly it is an expression of the present moment in which our collective relationship to time is totally challenged by global events. The label is most closely associated with tonal shades of warm rusts, earthy ambers and ivory silks — all cared for with decisive attention to detail and expert craftsmanship, a key signature of Mdingi’s work. RELIC shows a great deal of capacity for range as Lukhanyo’s ability to speak to a wider audience is fortified. Both the menswear and womxnswear are tailored to perfection in cooler shades, and each garment is uniquely made as a must-have-piece that serves both their local and international clientele’s demands for uncompromising chicness and uniqueness at all times. Pleating sheer organza for the womxnswear is a stroke of genius — and a strong indication for the level of expertise that goes into conceptualising the arrangement of tones, fabrics, techniques and forms present within everything Lukhanyo Mdingi showcases every season.
The commitment to an expansive sensibility that is both familiar, yet totally new, confirms that Lukhanyo Mdingi is not only a prominent fashion house but it is also fortifying itself as a business, one in which the balance of choices are made to nurture sartorial vision as well as secure the application of commerce. In my conversations with Lukhanyo, it is clear they embody both the creative force and financial executive behind the label. In balancing these two ideas, RELIC shows the paring down of choices to the very crucial. The details of the tailoring, the luxurious quality of the fabrics and the move beyond any thematic confinements in order to execute a precise collection that captures the classical spirit of fashion; timelessly enchanting.
I think a lot of the time as human beings we are so much within our walls that we completely forgot how the world sees us, so to actually hear that coming from you specifically — cause if anything you were there in the preliminary years of Lukhanyo Mdingi and also just in my zone during my younger adolescence just trying to survive — just trying to juggle this part time job and also trying to make this fashion game thing work,
muses Mdingi to a comment I make in picking up the conversation begun by Holly. As we sit in conversation further unpacking their practice, the sensibilities woven in the creations of Lukhanyo Mdingi, their collaborations and love as a methodology of design, amongst an array of many other things, the presence of integrity is acutely felt in how Lukhanyo speaks about the evolution of the fashion house thus far and the purpose that drives the work. An integrity rooted in showing up with love and concise intention for the craft, the creativity, its community of collaborators and supporters and the stories being told through the clothing.
Lindiwe Mngxitama: Okay, I want to start somewhere that isn’t directly located in the space of fashion — but which I think speaks to some of what lives in your creations — which is the first time I met you and we both worked at Clarke’s. I remember being both intimidated (not in the negative sense of the word) and taken by you. You possessed this assured, almost inward looking confidence, maturity and a tender sense of discipline. I very much felt those things in how you related to me as my manager at but also to everyone else we worked with. I think the clothes you create also resonates these qualities; they do not need flashy bells and whistles to catch ones seeing and feeling attention. There is an assured self-knowing carried in them, and a meticulous appreciation of tailored detail. Do you sometimes see parts of Lukhanyo Mdingi the person reflected in the clothing of Lukhanyo Mdingi the fashion house?
Lukhanyo Mdingi: Most definitely, there is a certain kind of inner steadiness and a silent confidence that I have within myself and I feel like those nuances are definitely something that you see within the label and within the creations — it really does reflect a huge part of me. In real life I’m very discreet, I’m very private, I’m very steady and I’m quite patient and calm. I’m quite tough, when I need to be and I’m also very serious — of course I have the lighter sides of me. However, I definitely do know which sides of myself are quite prominent and I think that’s something that has defiantly translated into the clothes. This is not to say that our label is stiff and serious but there is this consideration of sensibility, discretion and romance — of something that’s quite timeless. I think the idea for me is to be able to create a mood and a feeling — or rather, I should say a style — that is able to transcend over any period. Something that will always be relevant, even using the word relevant seems frivolous and fleeting but I think something that is still in the now. When you look at our clothes, our story is woven within the pieces themselves and I think the fact that we’ve been able to be so consistent within the signature styles, the silhouettes, the language, the feeling of the label — just adheres to what we are trying to do and mirrors so many aspects of myself as a human being. The provenance of our pieces always stems from that or rather, there’s a quest to adhere to those qualities. [This in itself] is not an easy [commitment] because the reality is, in order for us to reach our potential and in order for us to have this kind of precision we need to be aligned with key individuals who mirror us and that is where it becomes a difficult task. You realise that to [honour this commitment you yourself] need to be extremely consistent and vigilant. That’s a quality that a lot of people don’t have or realise the difficulty of cultivating, and that’s where things can become difficult. [Consistency] is a a requirement needed in our allies for us to be able to reach our full potential but also to create the pieces with the time, care, love and consideration they need to transcend time not only through aesthetic but also through quality.
Lindiwe Mngxitama: I was speaking to Nkosazana Hlalethwa (Zaza) from Arts24 the other day and she worded writing in such a beautiful way; as being a prayer. Perhaps, this opinion is tainted by a cloud of bias because I’ve seen how much you give to your work — even of yourself — so, in the same breath your garments figure like material, handcrafted love letters. To the elements you draw inspiration from, the materials and textiles you use, the intention and time of creating, the senses you attempt to invoke, the stories you are telling. Do you think love can be thought of as an approach or practice of design?
Lukhanyo Mdingi: I think you hit the nail right on the head because love is the premise of what we are doing and why we are actually doing it. The fact that that word encapsulates what consideration and mindfulness are — everything really goes hand in hand — I do what I do because there is a deep-rooted love for it and love is the practice essentially. The fact that I am able to be aligned with something that I am so passionate about, where it is design but also collaboration — I am able to use the spirit of love to pay attention, to listen, to care, to interrogate, to question and also to check myself. It’s important to remember that as much as I have all of these intentions, I am also human and have my own flaws. Its’s so important for me to remind myself that I am doing this because I love it, as soon as I feel as though I am swaying either left, right or going off course — I really need to look at myself fully which is not always an easy thing to do, check myself but also remind myself that I’m checking myself because I love myself. I love what I do and the people I am doing it with. In order for this to be yielded in the right direction and for it to reach its full potential, I need love — it is the essence and it is the practice.
Lindiwe Mngxitama: In speaking about your design approach Holly describes it as, “continually striking a distilled balance between the ethereal and rational – the poetic and functional” — while the matter of what inspires each of your collections varies, where would you say the poetry of your design approach comes from or is rooted?
Lukhanyo Mdingi: Well I think it’s in the whole romantic side of it, and I don’t necessarily mean romantic as in “oh I’m falling in love with another person”. But there’s a certain mood [circulating] in the clothing and that is something that is represented through the faces that we are using and also through the silhouettes — the finishing, the falling, the drapery. I think when all of these elements are tied into one another, there’s a beautiful hybrid that is created of something that just feels so seamless, timeless and ethereal — the photography and styling really help represent and capture this. It’s a visual language and visual mood, that’s also just part reflections of the inner me who is actually a romantic and loves these kinds of sensibilities. I also just love how the brand is represented in that way, nothing too flashy or loud but rather through creating this kind of ethereal mood. The key individuals that I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with over the years, have also enriched me in the most remarkable ways in helping me grow closer to myself and grow towards myself in understanding that this sensibility and ethereal mood; this sensuality and beauty is something that I really do love. However, with that being said we also do love something that’s quite stark, strong and solid with no fluff. So, I’m very cognisant of which allies or collaborators I need to have by my side in order to achieve these kind of moods that I’m looking for within our campaigns and within our editorials. Each person brings their time and talent to the party and they have a seat at the table and are able to use their own ingenuity, adding that to what we are trying to create. Whether it’s going to be something very solid and strong; a feeling or mood often achieved through working with my longest collaborator Travys Owen or if it’s going to be something a lot more gentle and romantic which would be through working with a lot of the photographers capturing imagery predominantly in film format. Each one has their own unique signature and that really does help enhance the visual language of the label.
Lindiwe Mngxitama: What was the process of conceptualising and creating RELIC like?
Lukhanyo Mdingi: That’s such an interesting question because the premise with all of our collections stems from making sure there’s a mindful and considered approach to them, which goes down to the literal making of them. The fact that RELIC was a collection that had actually started last year before any reality of a pandemic, enabled us to extend it and to distill it in a way where we had to also — for the first time within a long time in our business — we were able to finally look at a collection and use it as a way to make the marriage between business and design. We had this long period of time to problem solve how we could distill RELIC’s body of work by marrying and making work these two creative and business counterparts. It was such a revealing experience which made me realise that even with the most essential pieces, we really are able to practice mindful design in a way that actually requires more consideration because there’s less room for error. There was also a need to make sure that the fabrications were a lot stronger than before because of how simplistic the pieces appear to be at first glance. It was a lengthy process but we were provided with the time to really look at it and if anything, this particular collection has really been the catalyst in preparing us for how we would like to move forward with range building in the future.
Lindiwe Mngxitama: You and your mom have an incredibly close relationship, in what ways — if any — do you you think the creation and growth of Lukhanyo Mdingi the fashion house and the growth and journey of Lukhanyo Mdingi the artist and person, have affected your relationship?
Lukhanyo Mdingi: I mean there’s so many different parts of this question I could answer and it’s something we’ve already kind of touched on. You mention that my mom has been there since the beginning and to be honest she has. I’m not even talking about the beginning of the label but the beginning of my life. I think there is something that is so important within the foundations of a person’s life and I am 100% aware that I am a testament of my mother’s prayers and I am a testament of — I actually don’t even know what word to use — but the amount of love, the pure spirit of love that my mom has showered on me. And it’s not the kind of love that shouts “omg I love you so much”, but it is the kind of love that is present, that pays attention, that is disciplined and shows discipline when it needs to be adhered to. It’s the kind love that is consistent, that is unconditional and I saw and felt all of this. When you’re a child, or well for me, I didn’t quite know what I was feeling but I knew it felt amazing and that it was coming from my mom. If I hadn’t experienced that unconditional love with all of its other layers, there’s no way I would be able to do what I am doing today.
It’s those exact qualities that my mom showed to me as a child that I am able to bring into my practice. And I really do, I feel it — this practice is more than just a practice; it’s something that’s far beyond myself. There’s intention there, I am able to be pressed against the mark and keep my eye on the prize because of the amount of love I am able to give. I’ve never necessarily felt depleted, I’ve felt tired but never depleted because may mom has never felty depleted being a mother to me. This isn’t to suggest that Lukhanyo Mdingi the brand is my baby, no. I feel like its something that’s far beyond myself. I feel like it’s a pie that so many important people have a piece of. I am so aware that it’s not mine, that’s why you’ll never hear me say “it’s my label” or “I won this” or “I did that”, it just sounds so strange, especially being so aware of the fact that there are so many other people who are so involved in and who are part of this amazing epic entity that we’ve had the opportunity to create. However, I’m able to spearhead it in a way where I’ve been able to be aligned with the best allies and really use the spirit of love as a premise and foundation to overcome the most testing times but also to celebrate the most wonderful of times. My mom has been a force to me and thus allowed me to be a force to the Lukhanyo Mdingi label.