Last February, South African designer Sindiso Khumalo was busy completing her submission for the semi-final of the LVMH prize and planning for what looked to be a break-out year. With a Net-a-Porter partnership in the works and a shot at one of fashion’s most prestigious emerging design talent awards, she was expecting to spend the next few months shuttling to fashion’s European capitals.
“I was super optimistic about the year ahead,” said Khumalo. “There was talk that something bad was happening, but at the time we were still kissing each other on the cheeks, you know, very fashion.”
But by March, Khumalo’s optimism had faded as the pandemic’s worldwide outbreak changed everything.
Though she was named a finalist in the LVMH prize — an honour that launched the careers of designers including Simon Porte Jacquemus, Marine Serre and Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver — she suddenly found herself cut off from the fashion community. Instead of capitalising on her success, she had to shut her studio and send her employees home as South Africa went into lockdown.
“My husband and I were trying to work out how to both homeschool, look after our two kids and run our individual businesses,” she said. “It definitely became like, ‘Wow, how are we going to do this?’”
Fashion weeks that historically helped boost the profile of young designers are out and financially-strapped wholesalers have less budget than ever to bet on unproven new labels. Meanwhile, the operational elements of running a brand, like securing manufacturers and managing logistics, are doubly challenging as the pandemic up-ends supply chains.
But the old system also frequently proved a brutal, expensive dead end for young designers. The pandemic has offered the new generation an opportunity to try a different approach.
Khumalo’s path into the industry was never going to be traditional. Based in Cape Town, far from fashion’s typical launch pads of London, Paris, Milan and New York, her brand is rooted in social impact, rather than high fashion.
Since first launching in 2015, Khumalo’s label has worked to uplift and empower women by providing skills training and employment. Her distinctive, colourful textiles are made in collaboration with local, female-focused NGOs like Embrace Dignity, a Cape Town-based organisation helping women out of sex work by teaching them valuable skills like hand embroidery and crochet.
“What I’m interested in researching and communicating are stories around female empowerment and female sheroes,” said Khumalo. “It’s more important to me to communicate conversations [around gender-based violence] than the fact that the hemline was on the knee.”
It’s more important to me to communicate conversations around gender-based violence than the fact that the hemline was on the knee.
Muses for her collections have so far included American abolitionist Harriet Tubman and 19th-century West African Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who became Queen Victoria’s godchild. Her pilgrim-collar frocks and hand-embroidered tailored jackets in pretty prints powerfully reference the colonial era while celebrating regional artisanship and local manufacturing.
It’s an approach that feels increasingly urgent and relevant amid the social upheavals of the pandemic, as consumers look for brands that speak to their values and challenge established narratives and power structures.
“The parameters of success are very different now from 10 years ago,” said Sara Maino, deputy director of Vogue Italia and founder of creative talent scouting initiative Vogue Talents. Back then, distribution was key. For a designer to be successful they would need to be in the “shops that everyone knows the names of,” Maino said. Now, a large part of it “is giving voice to what’s behind the brand. And storytelling has always been part of [Khumalo’s] DNA.”
Khumalo is not alone in her iconoclastic approach to fashion’s business norms. A new generation of fast-rising designers — including the likes of Bethany Williams, Kenneth Ize, Bianca Saunders and Peter Do — is rejecting the industry’s traditional pathways and carving its own approach to build more responsible, sustainable and inclusive businesses.
For Khumalo, the pandemic has unexpectedly helped foster connections. Instead of selecting one winner last year, LVMH split its annual prize between all of its eight finalists. Once a week, they all convene on Zoom to hear from industry experts on topics ranging from design and distribution to business and finance. For all their challenges, lockdowns and travel bans have also helped create a more level playing field for designers operating outside of fashion’s traditional capitals
“You never [normally] meet your peers,” Khumalo said. “And I’m at the bottom of the African continent so it was really nice to speak with other designers, share ideas and understand different approaches [to the crisis].”
The last year has sharpened Khumalo’s focus on environmental and social activism, accelerating plans to expand her Cape Town atelier.
When the pandemic cut off trade routes to Europe, she was able to draw on her network of local suppliers to source all the material for her Spring/Summer 2021 collection, like organic cotton from a workshop in Burkina Faso. Because she couldn’t work with her usual pattern cutters in London, she created everything in house with the help of her all-female team, a practice she hopes to continue post-pandemic.
The majority of the financial support she received from the LVMH Prize has been spent on local recruitment — including an assistant, a production manager and training in-house seamstresses. Her long-term ambition involves a training academy that equips women with skills like embroidery, textile design and pattern making. After the pandemic, she is aiming to fly couturiers and machinists from London to host workshops at her studio.
“The most important thing for me will always be to get more women involved in what we do,” she said. “Because when we grow, they grow. It all comes around full circle.”