Last June, South African designer Rich Mnisi posted a picture of himself sun-kissed in a Gucci sweater and brown pleated miniskirt on Instagram.
It’s a mini skirt that has sparked a firestorm on social media and made national headlines. While many commentators celebrated Mnisi’s fearless expression of her queer identity, others took issue with her disruption of gender norms. “Men complained and women complained [that] I was kind of emasculating men and boys,” Mnisi said, reflecting on the backlash.
For the designer, controversy is part of the story. He launched his fluid brand with the aim of presenting an image of African masculinity outside of mainstream ideals and starting a conversation about it on a mass level. He is part of a rising generation of designers challenging gender norms with their designs, often battling prejudice and structural challenges to do so.
Even though the idea of genderless fashion has become more mainstream, retailers are still largely limited to male and female categories and cautious of alienating some consumers by mixing this.
“Anyone creating something worth being a part of, there has to be that initial backlash because you’re doing something that’s never been seen before; you’re doing something against the grain,” gender fluid creator Harris Reed told BoF VOICES in December.
This tension is amplified for designers like Mnisi because of their location. Although South Africa has some of the most progressive laws in the world prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, significant prejudices and intolerances remain. A spate of killings targeting gay, lesbian and transgender South Africans earlier this year has been condemned by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Mnisi said his business suffered from his identity.
“When a [local] the brand comes to us and then realizes that the brand is [run] by a queer man and our company represents [queer visibility] – we actually lost so much work because of it,” Mnisi said. “Coming from a conservative country, it slows down the growth of the business and the demand a bit.”
But the designer is determined to keep pushing the boundaries, alongside other South African designers like Thebe Magugu and Lukhanyo Mdingi, who have found international success with designs that draw on their heritage in a very relevant way. for the cultural currents that are reshaping global society.
The summer controversy has actually brought new customers to the brand, Mnisi said, and the designer is eyeing further global expansion. This year he exhibited for the first time in Milan in order to attract international dealers. “In 2022, we plan to do a lot more internationally,” the designer said.
Mnisi launched her first fashion label, Oath, in 2014 after graduating from the School of Fashion & Design (formerly LISOF) in Pretoria. But he quickly rebranded to his own name, turning his label into a platform to talk about his heritage and identity as a black, queer and African designer.
The first campaign for his new label was deeply personal. It featured bold, androgynous figures photographed in Mnisi’s grandmother’s home in Soweto, Johannesburg. “I wanted to photograph queer bodies in an environment I grew up in so that I [could] speak these living bodies in these environments,” Mnisi said.
The brand offers sleek silhouettes in flamboyant colors at luxury prices. Capsule collections with retailer Woolworths helped build the brand name, but in 2019 Mnisi decided to shift to a direct-to-consumer strategy and focus on luxury positioning. That same year, the designer was named emerging designer of the year at the Gasoline Best black fashion prices. The following year, her clothes were featured in Beyoncé’s visual album black is king. This visibility has allowed him to dress celebrities like Ciara and Naomi Campbell and collaborate with brands such as Adidas, Scotch whiskey maker Johnnie Walker and Swedish car brand Volvo.
The pandemic has brought challenges, but Mnisi has been able to continue to increase sales by moving online and leveraging social platforms to engage consumers. Sales more than doubled between February 2020 and February 2021, Mnisi said.
The designer seeks to continue its current momentum. He studies at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris and plans to continue showing internationally and forging more global collaborations in 2022. His brand’s emphasis on identity gives him a point of view and a strong position in today’s market, Professor and Director of Mnisi Thomas Delattre, Fashion Entrepreneurship Center of the French Institute of Fashion, said.
“Rich has an exceptional creative intelligence that translates on many levels: both in his collections and [his] products he creates as a designer,” he said.