In Conversation: Nandi Mngoma, The Rising Tribal Queen of Couture

Nandi Mngoma is one of a growing and determined generation that catapults into success at such a young age, without any indication of having yet peaked. The singer, actress, presenter and now designer, captured the imagination of an international audience when she sauntered down the red carpet as a BET correspondent interviewing the stars.

If that voluptuous ensemble was anything to go by, then the collection it comes from should be an awe-inspiring delight.

With all the excitement around her new line and with barely a moment to talk, The Insider caught up with Nandi to find out more about the gown and the woman who wore it.  

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The last time an African woman put the international media into a frenzy was when Lupita Nyong’o wore the scarlet red, Ralph Lauren caped gown at the Golden Globes in 2014. It was at this time that Nandi Mngoma was collaborating with Legit as its brand ambassador. Little did she know that two years later she would be creating a frenzy of her own, in a gown of her own no less.

Nandi’s entrée into the fashion industry has begun with an auspicious start, thanks to the black and white gown that she wore at the BET Awards that gripped the attention of the international media. Nandi topped the ‘best dressed’ lists of Elle US Magazine and E! News, among others, and has since received early requests for orders from prominent figures in the entertainment industry.

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Her dress even captivated the likes of Steve Harvey’s stylish wife, Marjorie Harvey. So much so, that she even interviewed Nandi on her lifestyle website.

Looking radiant in her bespoke gown, she left many spellbound. In spite of the unexpected excitement around her dress and the growing anticipation of her debut collection, Nandi is unassuming and flabbergasted by this significant turning point in her career.

If you Google the acclaimed dress, the word that appears most prominently is ‘slay’. A millennial description befitting of a millennial artist. That gown was just a glimpse of what Nandi will reveal at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg Spring/Summer 2016.

Even when I pare back the media hype, I get the impression that the collection was a long-awaited debut within minutes of talking on the phone with Nandi. Growing up, Nandi always had a love for fashion, a desire that was nurtured by her mother, who always had an elegant and graceful sense of style. A natural creative, it was inevitable that Nandi would be lured into some form of art, be it singing, acting or fashion. “I’ve always been into art and I do my own sketches,” she says, revealing yet another skill under her robust and impressive portfolio.

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During her time as the brand ambassador for Legit, Nandi had the opportunity to tap into her love for fashion, “with the Legit range I was very active,” she says. From that experience, she came to realise that fashion “is not as glamorous as people may think.” That did not discourage through. If anything, it gave her yet another outlet to express herself. The range that resulted from her collaboration with Legit was “a true reflection of who I was and encouraged me to discover my passion.”

Having long been surrounded by people who know and appreciate the art of fashion, she decided that it was her turn to stake a claim to the growing African fashion industry, proclaiming, “The time is now to do it.” With such a determined assertion, I naturally turned to the topic of her debut collection. Colour, the name of the collection, is the result of a joint venture between Nandi and Inga Madyibi. Madyibi is an expert designer whose gowns are often found clad onto familiar figures of the entertainment industry, draping his women in the kind of glamour and sophistication that most women yearn for. That he is collaborating with Nandi is something of a “match made in heaven,” as Nandi describes it. When I asked about Inga, Nandi confidently defined him as a “creative genius,” who was keen on working with her. “As a person, he is very subdued and passionate about his craft. He has great energy.”

As abstract thinkers within their respective professions, theirs is an alliance of creatives.  Being aware of the trite and clichéd references that of often typify African fashion, Nandi and Inga chose to take a more celebratory approach with a back glance at the rich history and vibrant culture that has led to Africa’s diversity, hence the name ‘Colour’.

Nandi is candid about what she wants her collection to convey. Noting how the West has “taken their own interpretation of Africa” and borne out of a conviction to re-represent Africa, Nandi and Inga joined forces to challenge these perceptions by offering something rather empowering without being glorified.

With such a shared passion, I am curious to see how this artistic synergy will finally unfold on the runway. It’s likely that we will see tribal motifs strikingly infused into their unique and colourful, couture collection.

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African pride has always been inherent to Nandi, who is as intrepid in her culture and heritage as she is in her career. Considering Nandi’s sense of cultural pride, and given that it’s women’s month, this then brings me to the question of who the Colour woman is. “She knows herself. She is content with where her life is going. She is confident and comfortable in her own skin and has a great, inspiring career.  She does not compare herself with anyone, and she enjoys life.” She sounds like the kind of woman that would, of course, slay.

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I then venture to ask about her music and wonder whether she applies that same process to her designs as she does to her music. She does. Her approach to both her music and fashion are akin, as each, she insists, forms part of the wider discipline that is art. “All are part of the art; they are all connected.” Her process involves surfing through the visual platforms of Tumblr, Pinterest and the like to get inspired. Nandi is a sensorial creative who appeals to all of her senses when coming up with a new song, or in this case, a new collection, noting that, “it’s important to stimulate all the senses.”

During her creative process for her collection, she would listen the music of Zoë Modiga, the emerging South Africa artist whom Nandi has been chatting with over the phone in the weeks leading up to Fashion Week. In describing her music, Nandi struggles for words, calling it “traditional, serene, scenic, African, calm.” Even with such endearing words, Nandi gives in and kindly suggests a Youtube link for me to listen to, and I happily oblige.

Within seconds of playing, the light and mellow sounds of Zoë’s acoustic guitar ripple through the air and her buttery voice patiently segues from high to soft notes, punctuated with the odd click of the tongue. Eventually, she reaches a euphonious crescendo and I am soon transported by her sinuous sounds.

It is at the point that I imagine models gliding gracefully along the runway at Fashion Week, looking like regal African queens of a bygone era. I then wonder if this is what Nandi meant when she said “scenic.” The feeling that Zoë’s music stirs up make her melodies seem slightly ineffable, which is perhaps why it may be hard to find the perfect word to describe it.

An entertainer herself, Nandi understands the vivid power of music to deliver something imaginary, she adds that “the music complements the show.” This easy and flowing synthesis between music and fashion will be on display as models walk to the “serene” sounds of Zoë Modiga.

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What, I go on to ask, was the most challenging part in putting the collection together? Nandi gives a measured response, saying “You need a balance [because] designers get carried away. You need to be practical.” Maintaining that balance and practicality may have been challenging, but for someone who already works within the realms of a creative industry, these qualities have perhaps been mastered along the way. She best demonstrates this practicality when she says “It’s important to know who you are speaking to, [and] Cater to your everyday people. It’s about selling the product.”

Showcasing her collection at MBFWJ SS16 is the start of what may very well be an exciting journey. Does this journey have a long-term plan? “If you’re going to start anything you should actually have a long-term plan.” Initially, Nandi wanted to launch her brand in South Africa first, but given the unexpected attention she received abroad, she had to reconsider, “I did not expect so much global interest.” She then realised that this was an opportunity to “show how [Africans] are different in many ways.”

In addition to showcasing the collection at Fashion Week, Colour will be live streamed for its global audience, on the Internet. Taking to the Internet is sine qua non to building an international brand for a digital-savvy market. A shrewd first step for an industry newcomer.

Like most fashion enthusiasts and industry members, Nandi also looks to the international fashion establishment for inspiration. She admires Carolina Herrera for her “constant glamour” and timeless elegance. Oscar de la Renta for his ability to make a “woman feel beautiful and empowered,” a feeling she hopes to give women through her own line. And lastly, Victoria Beckham. Unlike most celebrities who often assume the runway the with their own slapdash collections, Nandi admires Victoria for her humble entry into the fashion industry, choosing first to learn from the sidelines before venturing to build her now successful line. So far, Nandi has applied that same humility as she prepares for Fashion Week’s gleaming runway. It’s too early to say what will become of Colour in the future, but as our call comes to an end, I’m left wondering just how far those imagined African queens will go after Fashion Week.

The Colour collection is set to launch in the US later this month, and the debut show will be live streamed on Nandimngoma.com/colour on the 10th of August at 19.30.