Thoki Tafeni-Maas, inaugural winner of AFI Fastrack Prize

From AFI Fastrack to TANDI: The Inspiring Journey of Thoki Tafeni-Maas

Buhle Mbonambi

The one who started it all.

When Thoki Tafeni-Maas won the first ever AFI Fastrack Young Designer of the Year Award in 2011, she wasn't just launching her own career – she was helping pave the way for a new generation of African fashion talent.

Today, this Cape Town-born designer has transformed into a Seattle-based entrepreneur, founding her own brand, TANDI, which empowers young professionals to express themselves seamlessly through work and life.

Thoki Tafeni-Maas TANDI Bag

From showcasing at major fashion weeks to collaborating with global giants like Gucci and YSL, Thoki's journey is a testament to the transformative power of AFI Fastrack.

Now also a UX & Product Designer, she takes pride in creating digital experiences that empower users for global technology companies and fashion brands.

AFI recently caught up with Thoki to discuss her inspiring journey since that fateful AFI win in 2011.

How did winning the AFI Fastrack Prize in 2011 impact the trajectory of your design career?

Winning the AFI Fastrack Young Designer of the Year Award was a pivotal moment in my career. It validated my vision and hard work while opening numerous doors both locally and overseas.

The recognition elevated my profile, allowing me to connect with influential industry insiders and gain valuable exposure, instrumental in the growth of my brand.

thoki tafeni ctfw
A look from Thoki Tafeni's collection at Cape Town Fashion Week. Tafeni-Maas is the first winner of the AFI Fastrack Prize.

What specific aspects of the AFI Fastrack incubator programme were most helpful in your development as a designer?

It provided unparalleled mentorship and networking opportunities. Building a capsule collection for a large retailer was a dream come true and taught me essential skills for designing full collections for commercial retail brands. The workshops and feedback sessions with industry veterans were particularly beneficial, helping me refine my design techniques and business acumen.

Since winning the award, how has your design aesthetic evolved?

My design aesthetic has evolved to become more refined and sophisticated. I have embraced a deeper understanding of mixing textures, soft silhouettes, and tailoring details into my collections.

You founded your brand, TANDI, in Seattle. How has it been received?

TANDI has been very well received in Seattle. Although still small, the local community has shown immense support, and the brand has garnered attention for its unique blend of functional elements with modern design. We've built a loyal customer base that appreciates our commitment to quality.

Thoki Tafeni Maas

What have been some of your career highlights?

Some of my career highlights include showcasing my collections at major fashion weeks such as Cape Town Fashion Week, Africa Fashion Week, and Seattle Fashion Week, and receiving recognition from esteemed fashion critics.

I am currently working on a new collection, which I hope to show at Vancouver Fashion Week in 2025. Since moving to the USA, my fashion experience helped me transition into technology as a product designer, where I’ve built digital products for renowned brands globally, including Gucci, YSL, Alexander McQueen, and the Kering Group. Collaborating with these international brands has been a significant milestone.

In what ways have you incorporated an African design perspective into your work, if at all?

My latest work draws significant inspiration from traditional African fabrics, patterns, and craftsmanship, blended with contemporary design elements.

I always consider the global customer perspective, creating designs that appeal to those who may not be familiar with African design. This fusion has given me a unique aesthetic that honours my heritage while appealing to a global audience.


How has your experience as a designer from Africa shaped your approach to sustainability and ethical practices in fashion?

My African roots have profoundly influenced my approach to sustainability and ethical fashion. I have always leaned into supporting local artisans and small businesses, fostering economic growth within smaller communities and keeping production smaller.

What are your thoughts on the growth of the African fashion industry, and how do you see yourself contributing to it in the future?

The African fashion industry is experiencing tremendous growth and gaining global recognition. I am excited to be part of this movement, showcasing the richness of African design on international platforms.


Thoki Tafeni-Maas TANSI Bag

In my opinion, the world hasn't seen enough of South Africa's design talent. While there is visibility for designers from other parts of Africa, there's a huge gap in representation from South Africa.

My goal is to inspire and mentor emerging designers, helping them navigate the industry and amplify their voices.


From your perspective, why are programs like the AFI Fastrack Prize important for aspiring designers, particularly in Africa?

They are crucial as they provide emerging designers with a platform to showcase their talent, gain exposure, and access valuable resources.

For South African designers, we've only scratched the surface in terms of exposure around the continent and the globe. We need more representation on global runway stages, and AFI Fastrack sets young designers up to take the next step to larger runways.

What advice would you give to young designers looking to make their mark in the African fashion industry?

I would tell them to stay true to their unique vision while being open to learning and constantly innovating.

Don’t be afraid to build a strong network, seek out mentorship, and reach for the goals that scare you! Every day is an opportunity to refine your craft and make an impact, big or small, in the industry.



Looking ahead, what do you hope to see from the AFI Fastrack in terms of its continued support for young African designers?

I hope the AFI Fastrack Prize expands its reach and provides even more opportunities for young African designers, particularly more funding.

I would like to see expanded mentorship opportunities that don’t stop at the winners of competitions but provide access for more aspiring designers.

I wholeheartedly believe that the designers coming out of our country are some of the most talented out there and deserve recognition and investment.

Images Supplied by Thoki Tafeni-Maas. 

Retour au blog

Laisser un commentaire

Veuillez noter que les commentaires doivent être approuvés avant d'être publiés.