Designers are the next commodity for corporate brands

I attended my first fashion week almost a decade ago. It was four days of interesting fashion showcases, industry chatter and learning more about South Africa’s fashion scene.

There were big-name designers sharing stages with upcoming designers. It was a time of growth and the possibilities were endless.

However, a decade later, not many of the brands are alive. Some have rebranded, others have become smaller, while others have shut down. To make it in the South African fashion industry, you needed more than just amazing designs and to wow fashionistas at fashion shows. You need funding, textile development, collaborations and more.

Not many designers were able to get that.

Three years ago, something changed. There was a new crop of designers who were grabbing all the attention. These young upstarts were Rich Mnisi, Mmusi Maxwell, Sindiso Khumalo, Imprint and Thebe Magugu. People wanted to wear their clothes, the fashion world, both at home and abroad, were obsessed. Laduma Ngxokolo’s Maxhosa Africa was not the only new brand coming from South Africa that was disrupting the industry. Their use of social media also made them appealing to a younger demographic, one that wanted to wear locally produced garments.

And corporate brands were paying attention.

Rich Mnisi, who was honoured at the event, wore a cream pants suit with tassels. Picture: Supplied

Soon announcements of brand collaborations were happening, something that had not happened before.

In recent years, Rich Mnisi has bagged campaigns with Volvo, Johnnie Walker and Adidas; Maxhosa Africa has collaborated with Sanlam, Chivas Regal, Nivea, Vodacom red and Tastic; and Thebe Magugu has worked with Adidas and Castle Lite.

This shows that the tide is turning and the corporate world is seeing the fruits of doing partnerships with designers.

“As a country, we should have done this a long time ago,” says Kholofelo Xesha Masha of Xesha South Africa. The brand was recently picked by Nescafé Gold to front it’s latest campaign, alongside Nungu Diamonds. Both brands have created limited-edition products inspired by the brand’s coffee range and campaign title ‘Crafted Beyond Compare‘.

This includes a competition to win the products they have produced.

“If more corporate brands rope in creative people and designers and collaborate with them, it would help immensely and give them a step further and we, as a country, would be celebrated for our design prowess.”

“The best of Western technology of timepiece making, with African art and flair- A timepiece designed by Xesha South Africa. PICTURE: Xesha South Africa.

The three-year-old Xesha has been slowly building a name in the design scene. Its timepieces are, as Masha explains: “The best of Western technology of timepiece making, with African art and flair.”

Self-taught, he says the lack of local training facilities has made the journey difficult.

“The lack of training facilities in the watchmaking industry was a major challenge. The few that existed in South Africa, shut down in the ’70s. So, here we are working with a product where we have to find out how it works first before we could even engineer our first product.

“That meant that we needed to educate ourselves, which was one of the main challenges. We had to depend mostly on online resources and schools in Switzerland to get information. We really struggled because of a lack of mentorship, especially since it’s a niche skill.”

Their tenacity paid off – the brand is attracting a clientele from Europe.

“We have been privileged enough to be exposed to people, potential clients, support systems and a new type of market that could have taken us more than 10 years to build. What the campaign has done is it has also helped us refine our business model and how to take our business further.

“Most of our clientele is abroad. There’s a lot of appreciation for well-executed work from the continent. You see that from people from Europe reaching out to us because they want a Xesha timepiece. So, there is a lot of appreciation that’s happening for local brands.”

Tennis bracelet by Nungu Diamonds. PICTURE: Nungu Diamonds

Founded by Kealeboga and Ursula Pule in 2013 Nungu Diamonds, have become one of the go-to local brands when it comes to high jewellery and diamond polishing. While it is mostly famous for designing Somizi Mhlongo and Mohale Motaung’s wedding rings, it is respected for disrupting the jewellery industry.

“It’s a passion thing for us. Some people look at diamonds and it’s glitzy and glamorous. But the source of those diamonds is here in the continent. For us, it’s about becoming a brand that represents what it is to be producing high jewellery in South Africa,” says Kealeboga.

“Part of the reason we agreed to be part of the campaign was about making sure that people know about our brand more. At the end of the day, it’s about being top of mind to consumers and potential markets.”

What is interesting about these collaborations is how they show that big businesses have seen that designers and artists have captured the imagination of South Africa. And they want that audience.

“You look at MaXhosa Africa and artist Nelson Makamo. These are young creatives who have captured our imaginations as people and we are beginning to embrace what is local and what belongs to us. Our culture,” says Ursula.

“The brands are looking at us and seeing that we have the audience they want. We speak the language of the people. When they look at us, apart from our brand being aspirational, we also speak to the consciousness of what South Africans would like to see the country become and at the same time, they have realised that they are at arm’s length with really touching people.

“As social media came in, they have realised that they need to reach people using other methods and how the influencer market has grown so much. It’s personable and relatable. And that’s what their brands need to remain successful.”