Calling from Cape Town, having just wrapped up a successful campaign shoot, fashion designer Sindiso Khumalo sits smiling. She is her own perfect model, looking relaxed in her chair and wearing a dress from her upcoming collection. Her eponymous label, launched in 2014, is celebrated for its signature textiles and frilled, printed dresses; a style now revered for its effortlessness. But it’s the line’s sustainable garment development and handmade crafts that draw on her Zulu and Ndebele heritage that Khumalo is most proud of.
Her optimism beams through the camera, as piles of fabric samples fill her Zoom background. The studio walls are adorned with portraits and inspirational imagery of her latest muse Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and political activist. The scene for her latest collection is set.
For me, the program opens up the conversations we’re having to a much bigger audience, and gives us a larger platform to empower more women. I would love to build not only the brand, but what we are trying to say”
Last year, the designer joined NET-A-PORTER’s in-house mentorship scheme, The Vanguard, which was first launched in 2018 to help bolster emerging talent. Offering regular mentorship and a platform to sell their wares, the program aims to develop the next generation of designers, build long-term partnerships and foster exciting collaborations.
Now, Khumalo’s debut collection, which launched earlier this year, has joined a community of fellow recipients’ successes, including New York-based Christopher John Rogers and the Netflix Next in Fashion champion Minju Kim. It follows a triumphant 2020 for Khumalo, who was announced as a LVMH Prize finalist and received the Green Carpet Fashion Awards’ Best Independent Designer accolade.
So, where did it all go right? For starters, Khumalo’s designs and production methods are notable for their focus on sustainability and helping to drive socio-economic change. Giving back to her native South Africa and communities across the continent is clearly important to the designer – and The Vanguard program is providing a nurturing space for her to develop as both a designer and activist. “For me, the program opens up the conversations we’re having to a much bigger audience, and gives us a larger platform to empower more women,” she says. “I would love to build not only the brand, but what we are trying to say.”
The chance for Khumalo to reach new territories, including markets in Asia, comes with the opportunity to expand her team and, with her new designs launching this month, she hopes to be part of a greater shift towards more conscious consumption. “You have to make decisions that actually have a positive input,” she says. “I believe people are more aware of that now.”
Driving change has been at the heart of her label for six years, but the flame that fuels Khumalo’s activism was kindled in childhood. Her mother was a political activist against apartheid, she explains, and Khumalo recalls growing up in a home immersed in political discussion. It paved the way for her to study architecture at the University of Cape Town, driven by a want to improve social housing: “How can we make the poorest people in our country have the best experience when it comes to living?”
We want to empower women who have been really badly disadvantaged, so they can retell that chapter of their lives. That’s the real work we are doing”
Her fervor for design ultimately led to her working with textiles, and securing a place to study an MA in Design for Textile Futures (now Material Futures) at Central Saint Martins in London. It was there she discovered a medium to convey her message: intricate, innovative prints. “I thought textiles were a beautiful voice in fashion; a way to speak. I can write whatever I want on a print, any coding and any message,” she says. And while Khumalo’s focus shifted from architecture to the construction of garments, the task to bring positive change continued to underpin her work. “Designers are problem-solvers,” she says. “Essentially, I’m here to try and resolve things.”
Highlighting issues – and proactively finding steps forward – is what continues to drive the label, and it’s this positive mindset that makes Khumalo a frontrunner in a new generation of designers paving the way for fashion to be about so much more than the clothes. “The work you make is a form of waste, essentially,” she states. “You have to have a good reason to be putting stuff out there.” It always comes back to one question: “How can I make a change with the work that I’m doing?”
To champion young women of colour, the brand has also partnered with Embrace Dignity, a South African NGO founded in 2010 that supports women, girls and marginalized people who have been forced into prostitution. It was a considered collaboration initially instigated by Khumalo’s mother – and one that has enabled more advocacy opportunities to follow. As part of the scheme, women are trained in embroidery, crochet and textile design; they help on photo shoots and are welcomed into the studio. Now, future plans include establishing a training academy. “We want to empower women who have been really badly disadvantaged, so they can retell that chapter of their lives,” Khumalo says. “Many are still in their early twenties. That’s the real work we are doing.”
All this money filters down into the community and makes a huge difference… It’s about understanding what just one order can do”
Supporting the most vulnerable people in society is part of the brand’s DNA, and a guiding principle that runs right through to the vivid textiles found in Khumalo’s signature pieces. Each season, the designer commissions artisans from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and works with them to develop new prints. “All this money filters down into the community and makes a huge difference to people in places so rural there aren’t even street names,” she says. “It’s about understanding what just one order can do.”
At the core of each collection is Khumalo’s innate ability to tell stories through cutting and prints – and ‘Minty’, her upcoming SS21 line, is no exception.
Rich in detail, long cotton dresses are adorned with wide-frill collars, while pink shift dresses are crafted exquisitely in silk. However, the collection’s joyful energy and movement are also imbued with the tales of some of history’s most significant women.
For this, Khumalo looks to the life of Harriet Tubman. “She lived until she was 91 and freed 70 slaves in her life. I wanted to tell a story about a 5ft 2in Black woman who was able to rise above one of the most oppressive systems in the world,” she says. The result? Baby-doll dresses come with a delicate cotton-plant print – “the same plant Tubman would have been picking when she was six,” Khumalo reflects.
The celebration of women and girl power is what really aligns us”
As a mother to young children herself, Khumalo found exploring Tubman’s history and capturing her spirit in the prints deeply moving. “It’s not explicit. Really, it’s just a beautiful print. But if you ask, it tells us a bit more of the story. It’s really important to have these stories told, so they’re not just myths.”
Above all, her designs are about raising women up, which is why she feels so at home in The Vanguard. “The celebration of women and girl power is what really aligns us,” she says. And, as the push for social change grows and more eyes turn to consuming responsibly, one thing seems certain: this is just the beginning for Sindiso Khumalo.
The models featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown