Last June, South African designer Rich Mnisi posted a picture of himself, sun-drenched in a Gucci pullover and brown pleated mini skirt, to Instagram.
It was a mini skirt that launched a firestorm on social media and made national headlines. While many commenters celebrated Mnisi’s fearless expression of his queer identity, others took issue with his disruption of gender norms. “Men were complaining and women were complaining [that] I was somehow emasculating men and boys,” said Mnisi, reflecting on the backlash.
For the designer, the controversy is part of the point. He launched his gender-fluid brand with a goal to present an image of African masculinity outside of traditional ideals and start 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 as 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 that up.
“Anyone creating anything worth being a part of, there has to be that initial backlash because you’re doing something that hasn’t been seen before; you’re doing something against the grain,” gender-fluid designer Harris Reed told BoF VOICES in December.
That tension is amplified for designers like Mnisi because of their location. Though South Africa has some of the most progressive laws in the world prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, significant prejudice and intolerance remains. A spate of murders targeting gay, lesbian and transgender South Africans earlier this year drew condemnation from President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Mnisi said his business has suffered as a result of his identity.
“When a [local] brand comes to us and then realises that the brand is [run] by a queer man and our business stands for [queer visibility] — we’ve actually lost so much work from this,” Mnisi said. “Coming from a conservative country, it does make the growth of the business and the demand a little slower.”
But the designer is determined to keep pushing the boundaries, alongside other South African creatives like Thebe Magugu and Lukhanyo Mdingi, who have found international success with designs that draw on their heritage in a way that is highly relevant to the cultural currents reshaping global society.
The summer’s controversy actually drove new customers to the label, Mnisi said, and the designer is eyeing further global expansion. This year, he showed in Milan for the first time in order to attract international stockists. “In 2022 we are planning to do a lot more internationally,” the designer said.
Mnisi launched his first fashion label, Oath, in 2014, after graduating from The School of Fashion & Design (formerly LISOF) in Pretoria. But he quickly rebranded under his own name, evolving his label into a platform to speak about his heritage and identity as a Black, queer, African designer.
The first campaign for his new label was deeply personal. It featured bold, androgynous silhouettes shot in Mnisi’s grandmother’s house in Soweto, Johannesburg. “I wanted to shoot queer bodies in an environment I grew up in so that I [could] speak those bodies alive in those environments,” Mnisi said.
The brand offers sleek silhouettes in flamboyant colours at luxury price points. Capsule collections with retailer Woolworths helped build the brand’s name, but in 2019 Mnisi decided to switch to a direct-to-consumer strategy and focus on a luxury positioning. That same year, the designer was named emerging designer of the year at the Essence Best in Black Fashion Awards. The next year, his clothes were featured in Beyoncé’s visual album Black is King. That visibility brought the chance to dress celebrities like Ciara and Naomi Campbell and collaborate with brands including Adidas, scotch whiskey maker Johnnie Walker and Swedish auto brand Volvo.
The pandemic brought challenges, but Mnisi was able to continue to grow sales by pivoting online and leveraging social platforms to engage consumers. Sales more than doubled between February 2020 and February 2021, Mnisi said.
The designer is looking to build on his current momentum. He’s studying at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris and plans to continue to show internationally and ink more global collaborations in 2022. His brand’s focus on identity gives him a strong point of view and position in the current market, Mnisi’s professor and director of the Institut Français de la Mode’s Fashion Entrepreneurship Centre, Thomas Delattre, said.
“Rich has an exceptional creative intelligence that translates on several levels: in both his collections and [his] products he creates as a designer,” he said.