Pioneering designer Rich Mnisi on the harmony of his fashion and collectable furniture.
A young Rich Mnisi got into the habit of cutting up clothes, wrapping curtains around his body, and cutting up magazines to make paper clothing. This is his first distinct recollection of his interest in fashion, art and design. His first creative inspiration, however, was his sister, Memory.
“She was so adventurous and creative in the way she looked – from the clothes she wore, to her make-up and ingenious hairstyles,” Rich shares.
There are subtexts in the collision of what home is and the ideas behind what it represents. If home is an “irrevocable condition” as James Baldwin suggests, then for Rich, home is a constant state of pride. An ongoing celebration of his culture and heritage.
Since its inception in 2015, the Rich Mnisi brand has influenced popular culture and taken cues from it while pushing forward an innate conceptual thread that digs into Rich’s roots and lineage.
From his multiple brand collaborations and his sought-after RICH MNISI jumper to his richly-nuanced collections, Rich connects with his audience with aspirational luxury and functional art. His striking patterns, daring print designs and, at times, abstract tailoring – which hint at an extremist and minimalist approach – are all devoted to engaging with identity and the human experience.
Together with fellow designers such as Lukhanyo Mdingi and Nao Serati, Rich has been at the forefront of heralding gender-fluid design, which is both a social and fashion zeitgeist.
“The brand was born from my yearning to connect deeper with my unique culture and heritage and tell a compelling story through art. A story of a mysterious past, intriguing present, and reimagined future. This observation has opened us to many great African stories that have been erased over time,” Rich says.
He notes that his artistry stems from a place of fully exploring an idea in all its facets. This speaks to the fluidity of his skill, which spans fashion design, photography, art direction and furniture design. The process – whether creating apparel or furniture – is organic, where conceptual ideas are shared, continued or expanded on in the different mediums.
“I allow my hand to flow and the line work is inspired by the human form and nature. There is no line between the furniture or the clothes I make because they are all created to enhance the human experience,” he says.
The First Working Man
His newest Autumn/Winter 2022 collection titled, James: The First Working Man, launched with an accompanying fashion film, explores the practice of giving children English names in black communities. It also engages with the depth and intention of the naming.
In the context of South Africa’s oppressive past, when so few options were available to them, black parents from various backgrounds chose names that represented a new set of futures and aspirations.
“My sister’s name is Memory and it’s a literal interpretation of [being named for] the memory of my late grandmother. My mother’s name is Daisy, because she was meant to blossom into this great woman,” says Mnisi giving contextual background to the collection named after his late grandfather.
Boasting his signature print design, a monochromatic palette with bursts of colour and gender fluid styling, James explores life’s possibilities from the premise of four names: Precious; Ambition; Promise and Desire. Within this artistic framework, the story is a subversive contemplation on the potential that lies in our naming.
Weaving personal narratives and histories into his creations has also led Rich to discover untold African folklore and tackle issues of erasure.
This was captured in the design concepts of a solo exhibition of limited edition sculptural furniture called Nyoka (snake in Xitsonga), which ended its run at the Southern Guild Gallery in Cape Town in February.
“It started with a nightmare. My mother dreamt of a snake on her back. When she turned to look at it, she saw an intense green creature, frightening and fluid, dangerous and beautiful. My journey started here and led me to Congo’s Bushongo mythology and its creator god, Bumba, the god of vomit. He vomited up the sun, Earth, moon and stars, and then the rest of the natural world from that acidic pain and discomfort. Unlike most of our world’s origin stories, this one proposes that the beauty and life of our world could be purged instead of birthed,” Rich explains.
The collectable furniture exhibition included seating, lighting, a rug, console and other sculptural objects.
Nyoka marked Rich’s second collaboration with Southern Guild. His furniture debut was as part of a group exhibition in 2018 which consisted of a chaise and a stool. This was an extension of a previous fashion collection titled Nwa-Mulamula, inspired by his great grandmother.
Rich will be part of an extensive upcoming group exhibition at the gallery, titled Spring Awakening, opening in April. Curated by Southern Guild’s gallery manager, Lindsey Raymond, the exhibition will explore the cross-pollination of art and collectible design, and how these connect to enrich one’s sense of life.
Rich’s aspirational luxury, which enjoys the public’s consumer buy-in, is linked to a high price tag. This has sparked a necessary debate about South Africa’s relationship with and perception of luxury fashion, where despite the growing luxury market in the continent, some are hesitant to support local.
The definition of luxury has also needed to be interrogated. For Rich, this means, “affording the creator to work ethically and sustainably while creating innovations that do not exploit the environment and its community”.
His masterful craftsmanship, the artisan flair, and the collaborative ethos of his design process reflect this. The console from the Nyoka exhibition made with glass beads was created with the help of a local NGO, MonkeyBiz, which is dedicated to reviving the tradition of African beadwork. The rug, made out of wool and mohair, was created by women from Coral and Hive, specialising in natural handwoven rugs.
Inspirational and Aspirational
Rich’s R59 999 Xibelani skirt, which caused an uproar, was crafted from 5km of merino wool and knotted onto nickel-plated d-rings attached to a leather belt made of genuine calf Nappa leather.
According to fashion commentator S’nothando Mthi, merino wool is a unique type of floccus made from one of the most historically relevant and economically influential breeds of sheep found in Spain. She adds that other luxury brands, such as Michael Kors, often use it in their pieces, while genuine calf Nappa leather is used by brands such as Versace and Prada.
Producing work that is as inspirational as it is aspirational, Rich Mnisi describes himself as an artist constantly seeking to evolve and innovate.
This artist in progress is a marvel to watch.
WORDS: Kgomotso Moncho-Maripane