Sonwabile is an innovator, creative thinker and visionary. He is a sought-after trend analyst, and while his feet remain firmly planted on African soil, he uses a global perspective to source new ideas, gauge the zeitgeist and identify cutting edge trends. Local and international corporations have turned to him as a consultant, because of his ability to think outside the box. For many years he has worked in various fields in the fashion industries, and currently also operates as a freelance supervisor monitor specializing in global industry trends and business of fashion commentary. He has sat on the judging panel of African Diaspora and South Africa’s premier fashion awards, and has faced the nation as a TV presenter. He is committed to growing the local fashion industry and has through a variety of organizations mentored the young guns of the African Diaspora fashion designers.
In 1990, Ndamase launched what was to prove one of his most important associations, designing the so-called ‘Madiba” shirts for the country’s future president. “The decision to make a style statement was one Nelson Mandela made on his own,” he asserts. “He wanted to identify with the people. The majority of South Africans never wore suits, so he wanted to have a specific kind of shirt made – cut long so it could hang over trousers, both coloured and plain, with the conventional pointed collar as well as the standing Nehru. As always, ‘Madiba’ (his Xhosa clan name) wanted to do things his own way.”
“Madiba and I are from the same clan,” Ndamase expands. “So I used that kinship to introduce Madiba to the shirts. He wanted a garment that was user-friendly and light to wear but a combination of Europe and Africa.
The result was a shirt that has made its mark on the world: never casual, always buttoned to the top, classic, well pressed, and usually in boldly patterned fabrics, such as West African damask, wax-prints and traditional Xhosa cloth with braid. “The African Print Collection shirts capture the mystery and pride of Africa and are rich in colour and detail,” says Ndamase. “They are an original design in limited edition fabrics with true African value”
For the past couple of decades, Sonwabile Ndamase has worked determinedly, but largely outside of the commercial South African fashion industry, creating a platform for indigenous African fashion, under his Vukani brand and through the establishment of SAFDA (the South African Fashion Designers Agency) as chief judge of the Annual Reds African Fashion Designers Awards (RAFDA), which take place in Ghana, Tanzania, Botswana, Lusaka, Kenya, Mozambique. The awards involve a national industry search for latest up & coming talented designers looking to turn professional. It provides an exciting boost and opportunity for emerging young designers who want to take their careers up a notch. Previous Vukani! Winners have participated in Mozambique Fashion Weeks, Swaziland Fashion Week, Cape Town, Jo’burg and Durban fashion weeks to rave reviews.
In 1997 SAFDA Awards were endorsed by Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as an agent for emerging designers. In 1994, Ndamase established the annual Vukani Fashion Awards to help develop young and especially black talent, alongside the existing, generally white-dominated events. Each year, twelve or more designers are selected and tasked with designing garments along a theme.
The three prize categories: Most Innovative Designer, Designer Collection, and High Fashion / National Costume have presented mixed results: some designs are overly folkloric or patriotic, while some designers such as Sandile Kula, Vuyokazi Mabona, Mosa wa Mosa, Gert-Johann Coetze and Raymond Matukane to mention but a few, have gone on to establish themselves and service a clientele that is hungry for a local identity.
“Clothes are the signs of the tribes we belong to,” states Ndamase, “And once everyone was African!” Although he grew up in a traditional African culture with its strict gender roles, Ndamase remembers mending holes in his siblings’ clothes as a boy. “My mother was strict but not conservative,” he recalls. “So I did feminine chores like washing and cleaning -- even at that point, by changing the culture in our home, she had a futuristic vision, I guess. I also ended up knitting jerseys, but I didn’t see it as a serious interest, just a hobby.” In 1985, Ndamase went to study fashion at college in downtown Johannesburg, “But I wasn’t happy with the content because we were taught about Western fashion,” he recalls. “I asked myself ‘Why they can’t we study our own people?” So I left and started my own label, Vukani (or ‘wake up’).”
Over the next few years, Ndamase went on to study fashion from a more commercial slant in Sweden and the US. It was because of this retail background that he began to grasp the realities of the market. “This is an export industry which can earn large sums in foreign currency for South Africa,” he expands. “But it is fuelled by fashion influences that dictate how we should look and what we should wear. New colours and styles constantly create a desire for new clothes, especially among young and fashion-conscious people. But as I am a South African, I felt passionate about improving the indigenous fashion in our country.”
Ndamase has lived that passion, working as ambassador for his particular aesthetic and gaining exposure for designers on CNN and SABC Africa as well as showcasing their work everywhere from the USA to Europe, Japan, Brazil and a wide range of African countries. Over the past decade, he has amassed a staff of 15 and has relocated his offices to the Fashion District of Johannesburg’s east end -- and yet what he still loves most about fashion is its sense of flux. “What we make today might be worthless tomorrow,” he says. “There’s nothing safe in fashion. It is a train that waits for nobody.”
Aesthetically, he feels there has also been a key shift. “There are generations of colonized people who gave up who they were in order to embrace new knowledge and technology from Europe,” he states. “But local designers can no longer be accused of slavishly following European fashion. The term “ethnic fashion” will no longer conjure up boring, predictable, repetitive, if somewhat garish clothing. Africa means colour. We are revolutionising fashion, and promoting an image of South Africa that is confident, proud and self-assured.”
The style Ndamase describes has a distinct Vukani flavour. The ranges created for the annual awards have a theatrical quality, which though may come under flack for verging on Afro-fantasia, have found their niche in the local market, particularly for the now common “Dress: Traditional” events.