SA designer Sindiso Khumalo debuts at Milan Fashion Week with a powerful message
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South African designer and LVMH Prize finalist Sindiso Khumalo has debuted her work at Milan Fashion Week with a collection inspired by American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who famously used the Underground Railroad to free slaves.
Like a lot of major events this year, Milan Fashion Week was largely hosted online, and Khumalo was one of the designers submitting digital presentations.
Her debut consisted of a fashion film showcasing her Spring 2021 collection, which is titled “Minty” after Tubman’s childhood nickname. She collaborated with Cape Town artist Shakil Solanki to create hand-printed designs and fabric details relating to Tubman’s life, including designs of cotton plants and plantations, similar to those Tubman would have seen as a slave.
The film was shot in Philadelphia, South Africa, a nod to America’s Philadelphia where Tubman escaped in 1849, and aimed to show off similar pastoral scenes and landscapes Tubman may have been familiar with in her life.
The designs feature hand-crocheted detailing and embroideries done by women from local Cape Town NGO Embrace Dignity, which aims to help women escape exploitative sex work and pursue new skills and careers. She also chose hand-printed silk taffeta and handwoven cottons from women-led workshops in Burkina Faso.
On her inspiration for the collection, Khumalo says that as a black woman she wants to honour black female historical figures and ensure their stories are told.
“I want to educate people on black culture and black history, and I think it’s really important that I use my platform to educate and to bring hope as well. I feel like if I share these stories, people will feel like they can make some change, even if it’s small. It’s important for us to have these role models and talk about them because they are icons of our history.”
She also said, “Essentially, I feel that we have to look at historical events and figures in order to understand our present. Violence against black women has been in existence since Harriet Tubman’s time and still exists today with Uyinene Mrwetyana in South Africa, Breonna Taylor in the United States and the Chibok school girls from Nigeria who were stolen by Boko Haram. These events are all linked, and the violence is still rife.”
Her previous collection was inspired by Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who as a prisoner of war spent years in the British Royal household with Queen Victoria. Her next collection will be inspired by South African political activist Charlotte Maxeke, the first black woman to graduate with a university degree in South Africa, as well as the first black African woman to graduate from an American university.
Khumalo has an impressive background, having studied architecture at the University of Cape Town before working with architect David Adjaye in London, and completing a Master’s degree in textiles at Central Saint Martins before returning to South Africa to launch her brand.
This isn’t the first time this year that Khumalo has gained international attention. She was recently a joint finalist in the international LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, sharing €300,000 (close to R6-million) with London-based Priya Ahluwalia.
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