Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Fashion News: In New York, Lukhanyo Mdingi presents his collection at Men’s fashion week

What does it take to embark on a trip to New York to present your latest collection to an international crowd of buyers, press and retailers? 'Grit, passion and love,' says South African fashion designer Lukhanyo Mdingi.

All photos by Leila Jacue.

It’s a little before 12 pm US-time on Wednesday at the Pier 59 Studios in Chelsea, Manhattan. Stage C, 600 square meters of polished floors and high ceilings (that is used as a photo studio outside of the NYFW schedule), is the setting for South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi’s Autumn/ Winter ’19 collection.

Mdingi, who lives and works in Cape Town, is adding the final touch to his first-ever presentation at NYFW; the official fashion week only begins the day after, kick-starting a roller coaster of runway shows, presentations and private viewings that will cover New York, London, Milan and Paris. But he is part of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Men’s Fashion Week. This is lucky, in part because it is the second time Mdingi received an invitation to show (he missed last year’s fashion week to a Japanese designer); but it is also the last time the CFDA will organise Men’s Fashion Week – or at least in its current form. Steven Kolb, CFDA chief executive, explained in an interview with the New York Times: “We’ve seen our budget drop by half, at least. We haven’t had a hard time finding talent. We’ve had a hard time finding the funding.”

At the Pier 59 Studios, the set is bare, with only two screens as backdrops; the models – 11 in total – are sitting on the floor, on stools or simply standing, all immobile, hands barely floating next to their bodies so as not to distract from the fashion on display. The set-up is close to a real-life painting, the silhouettes like strokes of earthy tones and luxurious textures magnifying a blank canvas.

For a long time, Mdingi, who is a resilient participant in the South African ever-changing fashion landscape, has dismissed extravagance from his work: his social media platforms are never about him, you will barely ever see his face in any picture, but rather about his work and his inspiration; he curates his feed with elaborated imagery that reflects the soul of the clothes, a poetic journey into his creative mind. During interviews, he sits still, a steady focus in his eyes that some could interpret as seriousness but is instead determination. He often wears black: a tee with rolled-up sleeves on the shoulder, black trousers, black sandals. And although he carries with him a light brown leather hobo bag, it’s only because it’s a Thalia Strates, another young designer from Cape Town, South Africa.

Today, together with his coordinator and studio manager Alex Zonomessis, he oversees the production of the presentation that will be seen by the press, buyers, retailers and influencers from the CFDA curated guest list. “We worked with a show producer but only (for) lighting and music; everything else was solely to our own discretion,” he says. Although the collection presented wasn’t designed specifically for the CFDA Men’s Fashion Week, it seems perfectly à propos – dubbed “perennial’” it nods at the idea of perpetuity, timelessness, and a soft irony to the CFDA decision to stop producing Men’s Fashion Week: “The theme of the collection is about being consistently true to timeless essentials. The foundation of our work is always rooted by the quest of having a design that is solid, steady and strong.”

Mdingi’s point of departure is always the body: “There is a certain marriage between the body (and the garment) that we always aim to achieve so finding the right cut and silhouette of each piece is imperative; understanding how each style will relate to the body is paramount.” He designed 25 pieces, using pure Merino and Angora Kid mohair blend for some of the silhouettes. The South African Mohair Cluster (SAMC) financially stepped in to support Mdingi in showing at NYFW. “Our mohair industry is extremely special; our country alone exports 30% of the world’s mohair. It is such a remarkable thing to know and understand that we have this unique fibre at our disposal, (although) not enough people (know) how special and luxurious it actually is. The SAMC has dedicated their time in making sure this (perception) changes. Our label has been affiliated with them for nearly two years – they have motivated us to work harder on the business while enhancing our design process by using this quality yarn,” says the young designer.

He hopes to use his short time in New York to meet with collaborators and industry players who could help his business, and the brand, grow. And he knows that this experience will grant him incredible connections and a better understanding of the American market, one that he believes will be a lot more thriving – at least for his label – than back in South Africa.

A few hours after the presentation, Mdingi drops one last email to tell me what he felt once the show was over: “Extreme pride for everyone that was part of the journey,” he says. Collaborations are essential. ML

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