It has been quite the year for South Africa’s Sindiso Khumalo. In April, the sustainable fashion and textile designer, along with seven other finalists, was awarded the LVMH prize. Now, she has been awarded Green Carpet’s Independent Designer award which honours creatives who practice sustainability principles.
“I started my brand with the premise of being a modern-day Robin Hood, to make luxury clothing that will eventually help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, to create a change for our continent and to create a new future for our youth,” says Khumalo in her acceptance speech which was given digitally at the awards that also held online.
The designer earned her master’s degree in textile futures from Central Saint Martins and proceeded to work for the acclaimed British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye in London. In 2014, she launched her eponymous label in Cape Town but had to put it on hold after her son was born. Three years ago, she relaunched, working with a group of artisans in Burkina Faso to create the handwoven textiles made from materials like organic cotton and hemp. She has also worked with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative, a collaboration that has helped connect her with artisan women around the African continent.
Khumalo’s designs themselves are inspired by her heritage, as well as her mother, a former political activist who fought against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and her maternal grandmother, who was a master pattern cutter and sample machinist. Her Spring 2021 collection, which made a debut in her first solo show during the Milan Fashion Week, was an ode to the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The pieces were made using handwoven Dafani cotton from the brand’s workshops in Burkina Faso, while details like hand embroidery and hand crocheted pockets came courtesy of women trained by Embrace Dignity, an NGO in Cape Town Khumalo partnered with which helps women move off the street and out of exploitative sex work into long-term, stable careers.
“There are many ways of being sustainable,” Khumalo said. “When I work with the sex workers that I’m training…to make sure they don’t go back to that, that for me is part of my sustainability. I just don’t believe you can just buy loads of organic cotton and be a sustainable designer. I feel like you’ve got to do lots more work than that,” she added. “We have to understand that it can’t just be about materials. It has to be about your value chain. It has to be about people.”
Speaking further on her thought process behind her Spring ‘21 collection, dubbed ‘Minty’ for Harriet Tubman’s nickname, she explained that she wanted to “portray…[the] violence on Black women but to talk about it in a compelling way that brings people in because this violence on Black women has been going on since Harriet Tubman’s time…If we don’t tell these stories of our iconic Black women then they’re going to disappear…It’s just very important to talk about these women and to educate and to use my platform and use fashion as the tool to educate people on Black history and Black culture.”
Which in the end is what sustainability is all about: preserving the planet for future generations, but also recounting history so that it is never forgotten. The world of fashion could definitely learn something from Sindiso Khumalo.