Maverick Life

Something for the forever: Lukhanyo Mdingi on weaving friendship into his latest collection, Coutts

By Malibongwe Tyilo 20 February 2021

Right to left: Nicholas Coutts and Lukhanyo Mdingi. Photo by SDR/Simon Deiner

When his friend and fellow designer Nicholas Coutts passed away, South African fashion designer Lukhanyo Mdingi decided to commemorate Coutts in the most meaningful way he knew how – through their shared language of fashion design.

“We’ve found that the spirit of time has yielded us to create collections that have a certain steadiness to [them]; a pitch of some sort that mirrors values that are rooted by consideration and sincerity, swaying ourselves away from anything that is fleeting, a resistance of some sort that’s against the aesthetics of trends… 

“Our intention is to simply create a body of work that has a sense of soulfulness to it; work that is of substance, that is strong and that is solid – something for the forever.” So reads the “intention” statement on the Lukhanyo Mdingi fashion label’s website.

If one thinks of the idea of steadiness in the way the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it – as direct sure movement, being firm in position, showing little variation or fluctuation, and not easily disturbed or upset – then the “steadiness” the 27-year-old eponymous designer behind the label speaks of, does indeed inform much of what he does, both personally and in his creative output. 

From his 2015 Macrame menswear collection, a series of monochromatic looks presented in whites and shades of grey without so much as a suggestion of any other colours, to spring summer 2016’s genderless Taintless collection, a strictly navy blue affair of sheer fabrics and billowing silhouettes – through to his more recent Perennial collection which debuted at New York Fashion Week in February 2019, made of oatmeal shades and copper hues, spread across mohair textures and metallic fabrics.

Lukhanyo Mdingi’s Perennial collection. Photo: supplied
Lukhanyo Mdingi’s Perennial collection. Photo: supplied

It is also that steadiness of mind which led him to choose a fashion collection as the appropriate tribute to his dear friend and fellow young designer, Nicholas Coutts, who passed away in May 2019. 

“All of us who were really close to him were deeply affected by his passing, and we had our own ways of dealing with his death. A lot of people commemorated him through social media, posting things about him and posting their memories and hanging out. But I knew that I wanted to do it in the language of what he and I shared: fashion design. 

“Having had the opportunity to collaborate with him and really get the essence of Nicholas Coutts, I felt confident enough to approach his parents and his family and ask them if the LM label could commemorate his legacy through a body of work that represents the spirit of Nicholas Coutts,” says Mdingi.

On 9 February 2021, the Coutts collection by Lukhanyo Mdingi debuted at Pitti Uomo, the highly influential menswear trade show that has been held annually in Florence, Italy, for almost four decades. 

The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos

This year, however, much of it has moved online due to the pandemic. 

Unlike Mdingi’s usual monochromatic looks and neutral tones, here we see reds, greens, burnt oranges and blues living side by side. At times, Mdingi’s typically loose silhouettes give way to Coutts’ more fitted sexy looks. At its most uncannily Coutts, the collection features the late designer’s signature handwoven scarves.

Alongside his fitted silhouettes and an eye for textural combinations, it was the scarves that first caught the attention of the judging panel at the 2013 ELLE Rising Star design competition, which Coutts would go on to win, launching him into the spotlight. Full disclosure: this writer was part of the judging panel that year. 

Both Mdingi and Coutts were finalists. Having met a couple of years earlier in 2011 and hung out socially, Mdingi notes the competition as a significant moment in their friendship. 

“The friendship really got solidified that year. Both him and I were now in the same boat, not just in terms of being fashion students, but we were also finalists in this national prestigious competition that had been happening since 2000. 

“He was my friend, but he was also was my peer… and just having another individual that was exactly in the same boat as you, and going through the same industry struggles as a young designer, was really nice… to have someone to talk to and confide in and lean on and share what you’re feeling. 

“I felt like he was my only peer that was also my friend; there was that level of trust and respect.”

The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos

Debuting the Coutts collection at Pitti Uomo this year is particularly significant for another reason for Mdingi. In 2016, the pair debuted their collaborative collection at Pitti Uomo, the first time both designers had collaborated, and the first time they’d shown at Pitti Uomo. 

Says Mdingi: “It didn’t feel transactional. We were just two friends trying to put a body of work together. And it was like… business aside, let’s just collaborate and work with one another. We were 22 or 23 at the time. We hadn’t even made the marriage of business and design work; we were just designing and thinking about the shows and the craftsmanship and the direction of where we wanted it to go. 

“We weren’t thinking about the business of fashion at all. We didn’t know any better. All we said was that we’ll just split everything in half in terms of costs, and that’s what we did. We weren’t even thinking of selling the collection… we were just making clothes. 

“I think it was only later in our careers, as we got older, that we realised that we both have so much potential and so much to offer; that people want to feel part of the story. And the only way we can make this work is if we also bring in the business side of things, and make that marriage of business and design work.”

As with the ELLE Rising Star competition nearly three years earlier, which brought both designers into the public eye and led to a strengthening of their bond, the Pitti Uomo show would push them further into the spotlight. 

This slowly led to divergent ideas between the pair, and in the years that followed brought about tension and competition.

“We became more competitive with one another. There were certain times when it was difficult to put that aside and just be friends, knowing that every single time we would have a hangout at my place or his place we would always be like… so what work are you doing? What competitions are you in? 

“I don’t quite know why we became like that, instead of being the same peers that we were when we were both 22, 23 years old,” says Mdingi.

At the end 2018, just a few months before Coutts’ passing, an opportunity came up to be part of a trade show in Paris, France. 

“I was like, hey man, are you keen on doing this? And that’s when things started to get better between him and I and it felt really good. After the trade show we decided to extend our stay in Paris and have a little bit of a holiday and just hang out. 

“Sometimes there was tension, sometimes there was just a lot of love. It was an interesting dynamic, because I knew I loved and respected this guy so much, and I knew that he loved me too,” Mdingi recalls.

The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos
The Coutts collection. Photo: Jesse Navarre Vos

Coutts’ passion for craftsmanship and the role he believed it could play in society had also led him to work with Philani, a multi-faceted organisation based in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, that works to empower women and children. 

Says Mdingi: “I looked at him with so much respect… there was so much potential to be reached. Nicholas was making his own textiles by his own hands, and no other designer was doing that, to be frank. And then it reached a point where he was able to pass that spirit, using his time and talent through working with the women at Philani, teaching his technique and collaborating with them. 

“He used talent as a means of service. A lot of people don’t know the intentions that he had, the visions that he had, you know, and I feel honoured to have had a little bit of a taste of that.

“His passing made me realise there is an impermanence to everything. And it really made me reflect on my friendship and work relationship with Nick, and the importance of actually being friends, having your peers’ back, supporting them, and understanding that one is on their own trajectory, their own journey, and respecting that person’s journey instead of looking at them as competition.”

As Mdingi prepared for their second collaborative showcase at Pitti Uomo, this time without Coutts’s hands and his craftsmanship to get on the loom and weave his signature scarves, Mdingi would have to go to the source – the very same person who taught Coutts.  

“It was in January last year [2020]… maybe February… when I visited his mom Lindsay again and she was, like, ‘Okay, well, when you visit again, I have to teach you how to set up a loom and how to weave, because if you’re going to be doing this yourself, you need to do it properly. I need to teach you the same way I taught my son’. And so she taught me,” says Mdingi, recounting an afternoon spent with Nicholas’ mother, Lindsay Coutts.

He would visit the family several times, showing them the progress of the collection.

“It was a constant and steady in and out, because I knew each moment that I would text or call or even enter their home, one way or another, it was a reminder of their son, of course among other things that were in the home. 

“Besides coming in based on the premise that Nicholas and I were friends, I’d also be coming to discuss the body of work and showing them progress and getting permission to go into his studio. So I had to be steady, and do this sporadically over time to make sure I didn’t bombard them. 

“Because as much as the spirit of this is to celebrate Nicholas, it would still bring up a longing and missing, and it could be triggering; it would be a reminder that the physical being of Nick is no longer with us, even though his spirit is still here.”

While putting together the collection, in particular while weaving the scarves in the style Nick would weave them, and now as they had both been taught the technique by Coutts’ mother, Mdingi would momentarily be faced with moments of doubt about his decision to embark on this commemorative collection.

“There was this imposter syndrome, when I’d ask myself, ‘What are you doing? Who do you think you are?’ I would literally have conversations with myself like, ‘Why are you doing this? Nobody asked you. You’re just taking over somebody else’s like signature’.  

“But there were also moments when I felt his presence. And I felt him saying, ‘Go for it.’ Without sounding weird and spiritual… but I felt his presence. I remember moments while weaving and thinking to myself, ‘Lukhanyo would never put these colours together’, but it wasn’t about me, it was Nick saying, ‘Go for it, put together that green with the purple, bring in the gold, bring in the yellow’.

“Even in those moments of doubt, I just had to remember the intention… the root of what I was doing – love. I just had to remind myself  that ‘you’re doing this because you love Nick’.

“My friendship with him was too strong to just say ‘goodbye, my friend, I love you, I miss you’. No way. I had to use the language of design to honour him and his legacy; through what he did, in the most honourable way.”

The young designer has recently been announced as one of the finalists in the prestigious Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Prize for Young Fashion Designers, following in the steps of fellow designers Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo. This year, following Covid-19 restrictions, the LVMH Prize will be presented here; they have also added a voting option that allows everyone to select their favorite designer. To vote for Mdingi, click here – voting is only until 11 April 2021. DM/ML

This story was updated to reflect Lukhanyo Mdingi’s selection in the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. 

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