Sindiso Khumalo is redefining local luxury + the world is watching
Words: Daniël Geldenhuys | Images: Instagram + Getty
To understand the significance of Thebe Magugu’s 2019 LVMH Prize win for South African fashion, just think of the patriotic joy sparked by the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup victory the same year. Add the fact that Thebe is the first African to win the prize and the historical significance really starts to resonate. Now imagine the industry’s excitement when, still giddy from the Thebe win, it was announced that Durban-born Sindiso Khumalo was a finalist for the 2020 LVMH Prize.
Before attending Central Saint Martins for a Master's degree in textile futures, the fashion and textile designer studied architecture at the University of Cape Town. Between those courses, Sindiso worked for the acclaimed British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye. She calls it a pivotal moment in her career that “really opened up my eyes to what design could be”. Today, Sindiso is at her next pivotal moment, working from her home in Llandudno amid a global pandemic, bolstered by the benefits of her LVMH achievement.
Sindiso’s eponymous label, founded in 2012, is a leading light for what a South African luxury brand should be, beyond hype and aesthetics. As with architecture, there’s a pivotal fascination with materials. Sindiso’s work is characterised by her use of textiles at the pinnacle of ethical production. “My ideal is that I’m making fabrics that will be passed on over generations,” she voice notes, naming her two non-negotiables when sourcing: “I want to make sure that throughout my entire supply chain, there’s no stain of slavery or plastic use.” In practice, that translates to clean, fair-trade cotton and not going anywhere near polyester.
The idea of creating a product that is beautiful, does not harm the earth and empowers people by means of its production is one Sindiso believes to be integral to a modern definition of luxury, giving meaning to product in a COVID-19-altered world. A partnership with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative led Sindiso to workshops in Burkina Faso that produce handwoven textiles. She also works with Embrace Dignity, an NGO in Cape Town with the goal of getting women off the streets, to produce the hand embroidery and crochet details in her collections. Sindiso believes in the process of textile creation as a healing one, effectively channelled when women work together. “My biggest motivation is definitely my kids,” says Sindiso. “When you have children, you’re always aware of how other children don’t have the same privilege that your kids do. That motivates me to empower other moms.”
In February this year, Sindiso presented her collection to the LVMH panel in Paris. “It’s really something quite powerful when a group of the most important people in fashion pick you to be one of the eight finalists in a competition like this. It was amazing meeting all the judges, people like Anna Wintour and Edward Enninful. You speak to people who you’ve only read about or seen in magazines. One of the most significant conversations I had was with Jonathan Anderson — I was telling him about my textiles and he told me about how World War I soldiers in England used needlework to process the traumas of war.”
The Paris timing was perfect: Thebe was in town working on his Fall 2020 fashion week exhibition, and proved to be an invaluable confidant. “Something that really brought it down to earth was having a friend who’d experienced the whole process,” says Sindiso. “I feel very lucky that I had him there to make me feel at ease.” Also, a shout-out to her bestie, Ella, who popped over from London to help set up the presentation. “The experience is not just about you as the sole person. There was a community supporting me in Paris, which was very special. I felt very lucky to have that.”
“How everything has panned out has been, I think, for the best for all of our businesses in this time,” says Sindiso. As COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, the final round of the competition was cancelled. LVMH divided the 300 000 Euro prize money equally among Sindiso and her fellow finalists. “It’s an amazing statement of solidarity to share the prize between eight of us, because I think what we need right now is to come together as a community.” Could this be the catalyst for new era favouring partnerships over competition? Sindiso is an example of how that could play out locally, beautifully.