Minimal Man Lukhanyo Mdingi

Supporting his fashion label on tips, Lukhanyo’s life is complicated, but his style isn’t

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

A graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”

A graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”

A graduate with an accounting degree asks, “How much does it cost?”

A graduate with an arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

An old joke, sure, and not fair on students with an artistic lean, either. However, in Lukhanyo Mdingi’s case its also happens to be the truth. Something that becomes all the more endearing when you consider how there are professional Instagrammers out there who have chips on their shoulders bigger than the plate Lukhanyo is busy hustling right now.

Lukhanyo is a sweetheart. His sunny disposition was required on the day of our shoot when Cape Town did its Cape of Storms shtick and our plan to shoot around town went cloudy with a chance of balls up. As everyone commented afterwards, it’s also quite catching.

After getting us some coffees at the place where he works, Clarke’s, Lukhanyo then got the okay from his manager for us to shoot him there. If guy beamed his big brown doe eyes and Colgate smile at you, you’d agree to whatever he requested, too.

“My friends call me a prude all the time because there are certain things I’d never do. But I’m happiest like that and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like a sense of order. Being aware of things. Structure. Discipline. There are definitely other aspects where I can be a little bit more edgy.”

Case in point: his fashion. Not so much the clothing he wears, which is simplicity spelled out in a sans serif font. With a maturity that belies his 23 years, Lukhanyo’s looks are as simplified as his life isn’t. In fact, he’s carrying all of the looks that we need to shoot him in today in a small, plain backpack.

A disciple of minimalism, Lukhanyo accessorises with the same gold jewellery that’s as present on his person as the simplistic tattoos he’s adorned his skin with: a straight line on the right forearm and three characters on the left that are shorthand for think, plan and execute.  Right now that gold jewellery is adding some shine to an all-navy blue outfit: loose-fitting jeans made by his best friend Quaid, a basic sweater with a Nike vest underneath it, and a black cap.

“I’m always in a hat,” explains Lukhayno. “I’m not necessarily into labels. I bought this one from the station. I’m more about the quality of a garment.”

A practical man, Lukhanyo’s also a realist who would rather live up the West Coast where rentals are cheaper and then commute into town every day than live that City Bowl life. He literally is the picture of struggling artist, and instead of feeling entitled or sorry for himself – the type of traps that are so easy to fall into when you’re working your ass off and there are kids around you going through an iPhone 6 every single weekend – Lukhanyo feeds off of this.

“Hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. I’m the face of that.”

With five collections: Granite, Basics, Iridescence, Macramé and Chiaroscuro, Lukhanyo will unveil his sixth, Taintless, this Friday at SA Menswear Week.

“I pretty much gauge my names by what I’m inspired by. So when I was putting my new range together I looked at the colour palette and how the range was blurring the lines between menswear and womenswear and thought that Taintless was a good name because it means pure.”

All soft fabrics and sheens, Taintless is a collection that can be considered unisex, although Lukhanyo only wants men to model this range in order to show how a man can wear clothes like his. Having noticed how it was mostly women who bought his Macramé collection, Lukhanyo has redirected things for this show and made things more adaptable for both sexes.

Lukhanyo changes into the second outfit for our shoot; women’s skinny jeans that he keeps kosher by wearing an oversized grey T-shirt to cover his bulge.

Nothing from any of his collections?

“To be honest, I don’t wear my collections. I can’t afford to. I know it’s good for branding, but I’m a waiter, which should be an indication of how tough it is to own a fashion label. I don’t want to take stock that I could sell.”

And Lukhanyo does sell. Whether that’s the range that accompanied his thesis on Avante-garde menswear, Iridescence, or the ready-to-wear line, Chiaroscuro, he did alongside it to show his versatility. The year before that was Basics and Granite. The fifth collection, Macramé, was for the first SA Menswear Week that happened in February.

Will Lukhanyo sell out?

“I feel that the collections that I’ve created so far are quite commercial, especially the Macramé. That was really important. To show that I’m able to still use my inspirations to create a collection that’s very wearable. I believe I can do wearable pieces where I’m not stunting my creativity. You need to make money. You have to create pieces that are marketable and sellable. And you can do that without comprising your beliefs or aesthetics.”

So while his collections translate into a lot of words, what does Lukhanyo want the clothes that he wears to say about him?

“I’m a pure minimalist. I really do enjoy basics in every single possible way. That shines through my designs and my home and just how I do things. I like a sense of order. That’s what I’m in to. That’s what I like. Fashion is more than just clothes. I value the importance of clothes. Besides the obvious – protecting you from the weather, or wanting to look fancy, you can gauge a person’s vibe just by looking at what they’re wearing. And it’s more obvious with creatives, as they usually have a more distinct style. I want people to think that I’m put together. To see that I have a sense of direction in my life and how I’m going to get there.”

It’s more a manifesto than an answer, but then that’s what happens when you ask Lukhanyo about what he’s wearing. It’s a bit of a surprise to learn that Lukhanyo’s from East London, a place with scant opportunity for someone who’s not into Tap Out T-shirts or working at the Mercedes-Benz factory. And while he’s happy that he grew up there, Lukhanyo’s even happier that he left, having realised at an early age that there was nothing to aspire to there and that he had to move to Cape Town.

“The day after my graduate fashion show I got a call from Simon Deiner, who does fashion week. I was super stoked, but at the same time I was thinking that if I was going to do this I’d have to do it super fast as I was invited at the end of November and the show was beginning of February.”

Lukhanyo only wants to work with people who are as serious as he is, and believes that in order to produce the caliber of work that he wants to produce he has to work with people who are even better than he is in their respective fields.

“Katja Marr, Travis Owen, Kent Andreason, Gabi Kannemeyer, Sanele and Daniel… all the makeup artists, all the assistants, we’re all building each other up. I’ll be forever grateful to all of the people that I’ve worked with. We’re all helping one another and I appreciate them all so much.”

Which designers does Lukhanyo look up to?

“I look at my peers. Fellow young fashion designers like Rich Mnisi, Tamara Dyson and Genevieve Lyons. I look up to them because we’re all in it together. We share the same struggles. We share ideas and dreams of wanting our brands to grow. From my graduate class I’m the only one doing fashion design. Everyone else is doing retail or au pairing or something else.”

Is Lukhanyo ever tempted to stray from the path he’s picked on his particular fashion journey?

“The workload gets overwhelming. There’s just so much that I realise I still need to learn. That I still don’t know. But I appreciate those hurdles because I like learning. There are other challenges, too. SA lacks so many things: textiles, resources, machinery, skilled labour… Overseas they have different machines for different button holes!”

Why not move overseas then?

“Designers are problem solvers. I would love to do an apprenticeship overseas, for sure, but I’ve started my brand now and want to grow that as big as possible and make a positive contribution to South Africa. I’m going to stick it out at Clarke’s so that I don’t have to worry about a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday job. That allows me to focus on my brand. And it’s good to be here, meeting people who are like, ‘Hey man, I really want to do a story on you.’ So I believe, totally, that the universe gives you what you need, when you need it.”

And just like that some Black Label quarts arrive on our table. Shazam!

*Upvote Lukhanyo on The Superbalist 100 here