Words: Aluwani Ratshiungo | Visual Director: Ricardo Marcus Knipe | Styling: Didintle Ntshudisane
I meet Laduma outside McDonalds on Rissik Street in Johannesburg CBD and the streets are eerily quiet, as they get on Sunday afternoons. We’re supposed to meet at his apartment but the navigator keeps taking me around the block in circles so he offers to come and fetch me. I spot him from a block away thanks to the Maxhosa sweater he is wearing underneath a brown parka paired with red Adidas trackpants. You’d be hard pressed to find Laduma sans a Maxhosa garment, a quick scroll through his Instagram is testament to that.
The first thing I see when I walk in to his studio apartment is a rail full of Maxhosa clothes, a box full of beanies (the same beanies seen at the recent MBFWCT showcase), and a knitting machine he uses to make the beanies. The apartment is mainly littered with books – stacked on book shelves, window sills and tables – and Maxhosa clothing. He is his brand and his brand is him. He lives and breathes Maxhosa. The designer and his brand’s story is embedded in the history of amaXhosa. Maxhosa by Laduma is a locally made premium knitwear range that celebrates traditional Xhosa beadwork aesthetics using South African mohair and wool.
Born in Port Elizabeth in 1986, Laduma was the second of four kids – two girls and two boys. He was raised by a single mother who worked as a knitwear designer. “My mother was an entrepreneur; I don’t remember her ever working,” he tells me while he sketches a pattern for the upcoming Spring/Summer collection on a piece of paper.
“She also made craftwork, a lot of beadwork as well. She taught us that and a whole lot of other commercial things that we used as income. She was patriotic about isiXhosa as well so we grew up reading anthropology books which had images of amaXhosa. We used to take inspiration of the beadwork and replicate the pieces we saw in the books. That’s the home that I grew up in.”
Even though she was a hard-working woman, the money she made was still not enough to raise four kids on her own. “She had to take our father to court for child support. That obviously affected finances but because she was a hard-worker, we didn’t feel the limitations of resources much. I think she was a powerful woman actually to fill that gap in the sense that ‘I might not have everything but love is what I can offer the most to my kids.’”
Unfortunately, his mother passed away when he was 15 years old. At the time, she had already taught him how to use a knitting machine but she had no idea he’d ever become a fashion designer, let alone a globally recognised one, even though the thread started from her.
While at Lawson Brown High School, he decided to study Pattern Design, the History of Art, and Fine Art. During this time, he was also making and selling jerseys and beanies to generate income but he was limited to three/five regular customers. On the other hand his older sister, Tina Ngxokolo, was more skilled in the craft so it was easier for her to commercialise it. Eventually they also had to take their father to court to get him to support them. “The struggle was real but it taught us a great deal of independence,” he says matter-of-factly.
His flair for knitwear earned him a bursary to study Textile design and Technology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University where he later specialised in Knitwear Design in his fourth year. He was then awarded a WeTransfer Scholarship to study masters in Material Futures at the Central St. Martins in London where he graduated in 2016.
Laduma recently moved to Johannesburg after completion of his masters and has since opened a store at Work Shop New Town even though his main customer base is in Europe, mainly through online sales. In the short space of five years, Laduma has managed to build what’s arguably the youngest, global African brand.
As I watch him take a picture of the sketch he’s been busying himself with and transfers it to his Macbook, it’s clear that he takes a very hands on approach. Sadly he does not have full control over the manufacturing process since he outsources production but that’s about to change. He’s working on opening up his own factory which will not only grant him full control over production and protect his intellectual property, but also allow him to create custom made garments. He will also be doing his small part in combating unemployment.
“The plan is to open up a factory here in Johannesburg later this year. Fortunately there’s a lot of human resources for that because the South African Textile Industry deteriorated a lot over the last 20 years because of Chinese imports so there’s a lot of people that lost jobs that are waiting to be recruited.”
How did such a young brand manage to reach such heights in such a short period of time? Laduma is very involved and takes the business side of his fashion business seriously. When he started out he used to do everything from bookkeeping, marketing, sales, outsourcing production and even HR, even though he was the only human resource. “When you know your business operations, what goes into your business, you get to run your business better.”
Having recently celebrated five years of the brand’s existence, he admits though that it hasn’t been easy. “I glorify struggle because it strengthens you as an entrepreneur in a lot of ways. The past five years were filled with challenges and beautiful struggles and it’s normal for a business to go through that process of infancy.”