Lukhanyo Mdingi at SA Menswear Fashion Week SS17 in 2016.
Lukhanyo Mdingi at SA Menswear Fashion Week SS17 in 2016.
Image: Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

“For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a designer,” says Lukhanyo Mdingi, the 29-year-old fashion design wunderkind and recent recipient of the Karl Lagerfeld LVMH Prize 2021.

He recalls watching The Bold and the Beautiful soap opera and being captivated by the glitz and the glamour of the Forrester household and Spectra Fashions. “Aside from the risqué storylines, it was really incredible to watch and so enticing. There was a lot of media around the fashion world at the time — Versace and the 90s supermodels — and I just found it so attractive. Those are the things I was interested in growing up.”

Mdingi, the youngest of a “large, badass family” grew up in the Eastern Cape, raised by strong Xhosa women who instilled the values of being a good person, hard work, perseverance, and looking out for one another. “They have always supported my fashion dreams, and I think by the time they got to raising me, they were just like, ‘we can just leave Lukhanyo to do what he wants’. It’s informed how I move and who I am today.” 

The proud family, who have watched Mdingi develop into a young man, and his label grow over the past seven years, were elated by the win. “It hasn’t been easy,” says Mdingi. “But I suppose there’s a lot of pruning that happens where you finally meet the moment of opportunity. And I think having the Lukhanyo Mdingi (LM) label as part of this year’s LVMH prize and winning it [the Karl Lagerfeld section of the prize], is a testament to steady and organic growth, and I’m so grateful for that.”

While completing his BTech degree in fashion design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Mdingi worked as a waiter at a popular burger joint, and interned with key stylists, photographers and art directors, fashion designers and retailers, to immerse himself in the industry, explore career options and see if design was the right fit. “And by the end of it, it was, and it was amazing and I’m so grateful for that opportunity.”

Lukhanyo Mdingi SAMWK 16.
Lukhanyo Mdingi SAMWK 16.
Image: Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

He designed his first collection Basics, as a finalist in the ELLE Rising Star Fashion Design Award in 2013. Granite, his second and third-year graduate collection, got him scouted by SA Menswear Week to produce a collection for the show in 2015. That was Macramé, a casual capsule in muted greys, navys and whites. “I suppose that was the moment that set the tone of my career and I’ve been doing fashion ever since,” he says.

Though Macramé may have launched the LM brand, Granite, was arguably his seminal collection, cementing his voice as a thoughtful fashion designer. In considering the different elements of the granite stone with both hard and soft properties and flat and shiny tones, Mdingi used wiring, upholstery and Mylar polyester sheets to create blazers and hats, aiming to explore and identify avant-garde aesthetics and craft techniques in SA. 

Playing with opposing ethically sourced materials and traditional disciplines has become a calling card, which helped catapult Mdingi onto the world stage, leading to shows at Pitti Uomo, the premier men's wear Florentine platform; and the London and New York Fashion Weeks. 

One of the looks from The Coutts Collection that Lukhanyo Mdingi presented as his entry for the LVHM Prize.
One of the looks from The Coutts Collection that Lukhanyo Mdingi presented as his entry for the LVHM Prize.
Image: Supplied

Unsurprisingly, the designer has long had the Karl Lagerfeld LVMH prize in his sights. Launched in 2013, it rewards young talent for outstanding creativity, enabling a new generation of rising stars. Mdingi’s every move has been a deliberate step towards building a stronger, sustainable brand, marked by a sense of soulfulness, expressed in a timeless and refined wardrobe. 

“There’s a certain kind of honesty that comes with things made by the human hand. And we feel that those sentiments are literally woven within the fabric. That’s one of the signatures that makes the label who we are today.”

And so it was a full-circle moment when LM’s Coutts collection, a tribute to his late friend, industry peer and collaborator Nicholas Coutts, that earned him the coveted award.  Taught by his mother Lindsay, the Coutts focused a lot on hand weaving and textiles.

“What he did was use weaving in a way that I hadn’t really seen before. I wanted to celebrate his legacy through our shared medium of design,” Mdingi says.

Designers Lukhanyo Mdingi, centre, and the late Nicholas Coutts, left, presented a collaborative collection at SA Menswear Week in 2016. Mdingi's latest collection is a tribute to Coutts.
Designers Lukhanyo Mdingi, centre, and the late Nicholas Coutts, left, presented a collaborative collection at SA Menswear Week in 2016. Mdingi's latest collection is a tribute to Coutts.
Image: Simon Deiner/SDR Photo

To do so, he sought Coutts’ family for permission to incorporate his textiles into the collection, and spent time learning the skill from Lindsay. Using Coutts’ small hand loom, Mdingi revisited his friend’s archive of work, noting his appreciation for vibrant colours and crafted the oversized, two-metre scarves combining mohair, wool, alpaca, lurex and other yarns. It references tapestries created at Cape Town’s Philani Trust — a community centre that provides support for mothers and their children — with whom Coutts worked closely. 

The collection maintains Mdingi’s distinctive style — a burnt orange felt jacket, the standout fringed metallic jacquard-knit cotton-blend midi dress, a tailored camel suit. “It’s not necessarily just design that we think about,” he explains. We think about the human beings we are working with, there’s a certain kind of distinction that we have. And it’s really creating a hybrid between artisanal craft and modern refinement. The refinement comes in catering for individuals and creating pieces that have more of a timeless sensibility to it. 

“And the artisanal side of it comes through the spirit of collaboration and working with people who have used their time, talent and trust as a means of service to us. And that comes down to the craft of making. Creating this body of work has now informed so much more of our brand DNA, and it’s also now a continuous homage to his [Coutts’] legacy, and to the person that he is.” 

One of the looks from The Coutts Collection that Lukhanyo Mdingi presented as his entry for the LVHM Prize.
One of the looks from The Coutts Collection that Lukhanyo Mdingi presented as his entry for the LVHM Prize.
Image: Supplied

Competing with nine finalists, the overall LVMH Prize was awarded to winner Nensi Dojaka (an Albanian womenswear designer based in London). Mdingi along with Colm Dilane (KidSuper label from Brooklyn) and Rui Zhou (Rui label from Shanghai) will each receive €150,000 and a one-year mentorship from a team of LVMH experts in Paris. 

Like Thebe Magugu who is the first African to win the prestigious prize, and sustainable textile designer Sindiso Khumalo, who shared the prize with eight other finalists as a measure of Covid-19-era support for emerging talent in 2020, Mdingi continues to carry the torch for showcasing SA fashion design on a highly competitive global stage. 

“I’m constantly searching for the deeper purpose of life, and I interrogate myself with topics such as the ego and love and purpose and intention, and fear. And I thought it would be quite interesting to engage with real human beings and see what people take out of it and share,” says Mdingi, who also produced a passion project that continues with the spirit of collaboration.

Described as “an articulation of inner most musings; through conversations led by integral beings in the Lukhanyo Mdingi cosmology”, The Premise  is a nine-part podcast that teases out themes that make up the human experience. Mdingi invites listeners to immerse themselves in the words of featured guests — who include artists Athi Patra Ruga and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, curator Anelisa Mangcu, and writer Lindi Mngxitama — and be held by their wisdom. The six podcasts already out are complemented by a visual narrative created with multidisciplinary artist Yonela Makoba, photographers Andile Buka and Johno Mellish, and a sound score by Matthew Rightford.

“It’s a great privilege to be in a space where you’re able to communicate with 28 individuals who are able to tell and share the truth and be vulnerable. Through The Premise I’ve realised that we are all relatable one way or another and there are certain similarities within us human beings,” Mdingi says.

“What inspires me is always having a sense of mindfulness and consideration, together with working with communities. I want to use fashion design as a medium of service to others.”

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