POLITICS & ACTIVISM
SINDISO KHUMALO AND
HER LOVE LETTERS TO HER HERITAGE
May 5, 2021
"For me, the work that I produce is a love letter between myself and my ancestry and looking at the inheritance that they’ve given me. It’s a past, future and present conversation that I’m constantly having."
South African textile designer Sindiso Khumalo has made waves in the fashion industry with both her pieces and her unique approach to design. Originally an architect, Khumalo possesses an understanding of how to build something from the ground up, founding her eponymous label with the vision of highlighting the intersection between sustainable fashion and her African heritage—everything that she holds dear.
Her background in architecture colors the lens through which she approaches design. Meticulous and detail-oriented, Khumalo fabricates all of her pieces with intention. To begin, she seeks to build a strong foundation, carefully choosing the raw materials that her patterns will decorate. Collaborating with African artisans skilled in weaving, embroidery and sewing, Khumalo ensures that each and every one of her pieces is constructed by hand with the utmost care. It is through this collaboration with rural artisans that Khumalo is able to wield fashion as a tool to uplift African communities. This is especially evident in her work with Embrace Dignity, an NGO that removes African women from the dangers of exploitative sex work by empowering them with skills like sewing, gifting them with a different avenue through which they can secure their livelihood.
After choosing the raw materials, Khumalo picks a motif, a pattern that will be repeated throughout the fabric, one that is often inspired by her culture. By embellishing fabrics with novelty patterns, Khumalo is able to tell the stories of her heritage. This can be seen in one of the most eye-catching pieces of her Spring/Summer 2021 collection. Light pink and adorned with puffy sleeves and lapels surrounding a high collar, this dress is decorated with a seemingly harmless, floral pattern, exuding innocence, as it is largely reminiscent of children's attire of the past. However, it is upon closer examination that the sinister realization dawns on the viewer; sketches of cotton plants—the ones slaves were forced to pick—are depicted within the pattern of this piece. This dark symbol corrupts the girlish canvas that it is laid upon and memorializes how the childhood of Black children, a time that’s supposed to be characterized by innocence, was ruined by slavery.
This eerily nostalgic piece is a part of a larger collection that pays homage to African American hero Harriet Tubman, who repeatedly risked her life to free slaves through the Underground Railroad. Dubbed “Minty” after Tubman’s childhood nickname, this collection frequently features graphics of the cotton plants, an ominous reminder of the cruelty that Black people endured at the hands of white supremacy.
Still, despite the prominence of this dark symbol in her collection, Khumalo is able to artfully turn this collection into one that emanates hope, too. Sprinkled into various pieces are illustrations of the Philadelphia Fleabane, the wildflower that Tubman would have first laid her eyes upon after reaching safety, encapsulating the promising feeling of freedom that she must have felt upon arrival.
Because of the pandemic, "Minty" debuted virtually in the form of a campaign film. Directed by Khumalo herself, the video features model Nina Henry donned in all the pieces of the collection, which was sentimental in nature. In particular, the film showcased a baby blue two-piece set that is strongly reminiscent of children’s pajamas, as it is seemingly soft to the touch with its fuzzy detailings, and once again possesses the large lapels that often characterized youth clothing of the time period. Perhaps the most special part of this piece is the embroidery of "Harriet" in red. As Henry models these childlike pieces with Tubman's name, she frolics freely through fields that strongly resemble cotton plantations, twirling innocently, without a care in the world. Thus, this collection is a reclamation of Tubman’s stolen childhood. In this idyllic world that Khumalo has created, at least, Tubman is able to be a real child, unburdened by the hardships that characterized her life.
The collection's historical significance is astounding, but it has modern-day implications as well. All the pieces, most notably the ones made of cotton, are handwoven by African artisans, transforming this symbol of Black trauma into a channel through which Black communities can be uplifted. Filmed in Philadelphia, South Africa, Henry's free strides through the field is both a symbolic reclamation of the land and a statement on the disproportionate violence that Black women face. Like Henry in the film, all Black women deserve to be able to, as Khumalo artfully puts it, “walk freely through any landscape, or place without fear.”
A close examination of Khumalo's design process and works illustrates how each and every one of her pieces is crafted with deep meaning. Through her creations, she marries her dedication to sustainable fashion with her desire to empower African communities, all while sharing the beauty of her ancestry with the world.