On graduating from LISOF in 2014 with a degree in fashion, Johannesburg-born Rich Mnisi considered giving up design and doing something completely different, so implausible did it seem that his dream if becoming a designer could become a reality. Mnisi entered the Africa Fashion International awards, without any expectations of winning, only to be awarded Young Designer of the Year for 2014.
Following that career-changing accolade, Mnisi built up a brand called OATH Studio, which he has now translated into an online store and blog under his own name, making the crucial leap from lauded young designer to viable commercial business. Mnisi is fascinated by pop culture and through his label looks, “to maintain a contemporary outlook and stand firm in an aesthetic that brings worlds of artistic imagination together.”
How has growing up in Johannesburg influenced your direction as a designer?
Growing up I was always in awe of my sisters desire to outshine her friends. She looked at a pair of jeans and saw a skirt; the way she reworked and altered her clothing was absolutely inspiring. She triggered my desire to play with clothes myself. At a very young age I became interested in the trend of cutting up clothing, wrapping curtains around my body and cutting up magazines to make paper clothing.
Would you say that pursuing something ‘creative’ is perceived as less practical than following a more traditional career path in South Africa?
Always. It’s seen as something reckless and short-lived. I am fortunate to have been born into a family of open-minded people. Although it took a lot of convincing for my mother to let me enrol in fashion school, she was ultimately open to the idea. It was a risk for the whole family and yet she was willing to take it.
What inspired your latest collection?
SS’17 saw a series of collaborations between myself and Thebe Magugu, Maps Maponyane and 5 Past 5 Design, with each bringing their unique take on things. It was a season of conversation; about South African families, their strength and what they represent.
Why did you rebrand OATH and revert to your eponymous label?
OATH was really a chance for me to test things out and identify if I could create a sustainable fashion business in South Africa that could simultaneously maintain its voice and achieve commercial success. Under OATH, I collaborated with Gabrielle Kannemeyer and Kristin-lee Moolman on my Spring/Summer ’16 campaign, which we shot in my late grandmother’s house in Chiawelo, Soweto. That triggered a lot of emotions in me and I was very proud.
The name change has been something that I have been thinking about for a very long time. I was done hiding behind the brand name and had come to a point at which I had decided to be a designer full-time and was ready to take on the personal responsibility that that entails. So RICH MNISI was born.
The rebrand signifies something, which is time. At first it was just about making clothes but now it’s about starting conversations. As a designer in South Africa – a very conservative country – it’s hard not to fall into the trap of making the ‘right product’ and not exploring possible gaps in the market. I decided that I’d rather take my time and explore the riches embedded in African culture; starting a conversation around the youth of today, African design and where it’s going.
What impact has winning Young Designer of the Year had on your career?
It was more of a personal thing for me. It was an indication that I have a story to tell and that people are willing to listen. That a young South African man can explore these elements that transcend cultural stereotypes and still find an audience.
Can you describe the person that wears Rich Mnisi?
A curious mind, an explorer, a design enthusiast.
What are some of the challenges facing young creatives in South Africa today?
Support. Africa is seen as an island, although in reality it’s a continent with over 2000 tribes. If a creative from Africa emerges and doesn’t represent this ‘Island Africa’, an idea constructed by the West, they’re either dismissed or accused of being inspired by the West and forgetting the richness and diversity of their own continent.
Louis Botha is a talented photographer based in South Africa who values the beauty of simplicity. Botha subscribes to the philosophy that, “less is more”, and believes in the value of light and time.
When did you first start taking photographs?
It’s an interesting and somewhat complicated story, but I started while I was at medical school. My father used to do photography and so would spend time in the black room, but it seems my desire to take photographs came a bit later. From then on, though, it became an overwhelming passion.
Whose work inspires you?
I admire the greats of old, people like Yousuf Karsh, Helmut Newton, Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, Arthur Algort, Mario Testino, to name a few. But also the newer generation of photographers, people like Steven Klein, Mariano Vivanco, Mert and Marcus, etcetera. I would say people who are not afraid to try something new and be themselves at the same time.
What was the concept behind Devils Don’t Cry?
Definitely to step outside the box and do something different, interesting, creative, challenging and fun.
What is your philosophy about photography?
Keep finding new things that make what you do exciting. If you wake up feeling the same for too long, it’s a clear sign that you need to stir the pot and change things up a bit. Don’t be afraid to be different. Challenge yourself on different levels, but stay true to who you are.
What are some of the obstacles that face young creatives in South Africa today?
In my opinion, the market is quite small, and therefore it can be defensive. There isn’t much opportunity for new, young talent to show what they can do. We have limited fashion publications, so it is difficult to become part of the industry. Also, practical factors such as lack of resources, poor public transport and a paucity of true encouragement in various creative fields. Another struggle is to create work that is unconventional. There is still a very conservative mindset and being too different in your work can be frowned upon.
What would you change about the industry, if you could?
I would give young, driven, untapped talent a chance. I wouldn’t always stick with the same people but rather allow new people to show what they can do. I would like to create more opportunities for artists to showcase their work. In essence, I would make it more accessible.
What distinguishes South African talent from the rest of the world?
There is a diverse range of cultures and truly unique, beautiful people. You can find so many different and exciting looks if you search in the right places.
Finally, what projects are you working on at the moment?
I am in the planning process of doing a book on unconventional takes on models in the fashion industry. I am also working on an exhibition project that pertains to youtube and vlogging. It’s a fascinating culture and one that is growing at an exponential rate.