Rich Mnisi knows just how to turn heads. The maverick fashion designer’s eye-catching creations keep pushing boundaries, making manifest exquisite collections that range from the quirky to the elegant and wildly imaginative. JANE MAYNE chats to the innovator.

Mnisi’s striking use of line and colour exudes a positivity that resonates far and wide. “The biggest thing for me when creating a piece of art is for it to generate a conversation – be it a conversation you have with yourself, with the work itself, or with others around you. A piece may even trigger personal thoughts around the themes explored to create it, as well as ideas around the specific colours, shapes and patterns used. Ultimately, I want to uplift, delight and intrigue people with beautiful pieces – but at the same time also challenge them to think more deeply about what they’re viewing,” he says.

Rich Mnisi. Picture: Ricardo Simal and Southern Guild
Rich Mnisi. Picture: Ricardo Simal and Southern Guild

Eye-popping collections

Spearheading his popular Rich Mnisi label, this young entrepreneurs’ pieces are snapped up by celebs and trendy fashionistas alike. His brand has been bolstered by accolades such as Africa Fashion International Young Designer of the Year (Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa 2014);

Emerging Designer of the Year in New York (Essence Best in Black Fashion awards 2019), and an inclusion on the 2019 Forbes #30under30 list.

In an extension to his eye-popping collections, Rich has turned his hand to collectible furniture design. A collaboration with Southern Guild at the Silo District in Cape Town sees his first solo exhibition, titled Nyoka, on show from 2 October 2021 to 4 February, 2022.

Form, flow, movement

The exploration is brought to life using materials such as bronze, wool, resin and glass. Did these facilitate a different kind of expression compared to the conventional fabrics he works with?

“Texture, pattern and movement have always been key features in my fashion designs, and this can be seen in my choice of fabrics. When it came to the Nyoka collection, form, flow and movement were at the front of my mind – all elements epitomized by the snake. So, with this inspiration to draw on, as well as various others representing flow, when it came to choosing materials it was important to select ones that would help convey this. For example, for a console, we wanted to capture that sense of movement of the xibelani skirt, and beading seemed like the best form of artistry to relay that feeling and flow.”

To realise his vision Rich collaborated with artisan groups such as Monkeybiz, Coral & Hive and Bronze Age Studio. “I am passionate about promoting craft and South African handwork in my practice, so I always jump at any opportunity to collaborate with local artisans. I do think that the artistry in African craft handwork is undervalued to a degree, in that people don’t always understand the extent of the talent, time and work that goes into the craft. The focus shouldn’t solely be on the finished product, but rather also shifted to the process that got it to that point. Artisans and crafts people need to be acknowledged, a sentiment I hope to promote through the sharing of my work.”

While pop culture looms large in Mnisi’s designs, his work is also underpinned by African mythology. “Tradition and folklore are integral to who we are – they give us roots and can help mould our sense of self. They also often shape how we see the world. So much of African mythology, culture and tradition has been erased by time or taken away from us by colonisers. Now, having the opportunity to re-visit those stories, give them context and have them realised as alternative truths, feels very empowering. In a way, it also forces you to question all you know to be true.”

Rich Mnisi Alkebulan I Leather Chaise. Picture: Hayden Phipps and Southern Guild
Rich Mnisi’s Alkebulan I Leather Chaise. Picture: Hayden Phipps and Southern Guild

Sensuous flowing lines

Rich’s Southern Guild collection includes seating, a console, chandelier, rug and other objects, and visitors can expect the same inventive approach as seen in his dynamic clothing line. What elements guide him to produce something extraordinary?

“My broad design vision is underpinned by an aesthetic and philosophical fluidity, something to which I’m naturally drawn, and this is reflected in my approach to all design. This doesn’t only mean in terms of movement and flow, but also signifies the breaking down of boundaries. I create for everyone, beyond gender, race, and geographical lines. For me fluidity represents inclusivity, a tenet I hold very close to my heart. Also, whether designing clothes or furniture, the process is always an intuitive one for me.”

Soft yielding curves in pieces such as his Nwa-Mulamula Chaise are a standout feature. What impact does shape have on the psyche?

“Fluid lines aid in creating a conversation that stretches past the aesthetic and engages you in an exchange about comfort and preference – something, for example, our chaise does very well. You’re confronted by endless seating options that contour to the intricate shapes the human form can create. For me, there is also something incredibly hypnotic, sensuous, and calming about flowing lines and shapes that embody movement.”

Rich describes the distilled synthesis that drives all his creations as, “a need for consultation and questioning, and a call for change.”

This is reinforced by the symbology of the snake, which echoes throughout the Nyoka collection: “Snakes are revered in African spirituality to represent healing and transformation. All this symbolism resonates very strongly with me, as I am a huge advocate for change and the breaking down of boundaries. For me, fluidity represents inclusivity, an ideology reflected through my love for creating for everyone.”

Who: Rich Mnisi Nyoka exhibition
Where: Southern Guild, Silo 5, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town
When: 2 October 2021 – 4 February 2022
WS