With his daring aesthetic, South African designer Rich Mnisi unapologetically celebrates his history and heritage through furniture and fashion.
By Rachel Gallaher
Photographed by Ricardo Simal
Cover story as published in GRAY Magazine No. 59
A look from South African fashion designer Rich Mnisi’s Spring/Summer 21 collection, Hiya Kaya. The designs were inspired by an appreciation for the women of the VaTsonga tribe, specifically Mnisi’s mother.
Rich Mnisi’s career began with a personal challenge. Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a family of educators, he felt pressured to pursue a field that provided stability and security—and his mother made it clear that she didn’t think fashion fit that bill.
“She wanted me to choose a career path that was essential and not ‘frivolous,’” Mnisi says. “Eventually, I convinced my family that I could make [a career in fashion] work, and as soon as my mother said ‘yes,’ that I could study fashion, I was on a mission to succeed.”
Mnisi attended the London International School of Fashion (now Stadio) and graduated in 2014. A few months after graduation, while he was showing a collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Johannesburg, his mother conceded that he had been right. Through hard work, sheer talent, and endless passion, her son was becoming a successful fashion designer. That year, he was honored with the African Fashion International Fastrack Young Designer of the Year award.
In 2015, Mnisi founded his eponymous, contemporary multidisciplinary brand, debuting the Unthinking collection, an amalgam of gender-neutral pieces with strong silhouettes (bell-bottom pants, long jackets and skirts) reminiscent of ’70s-era fashions, but done in materials like pleated metallics and dark denims that kept the looks fresh.
Mnisi is known for his daring use of color and pattern. The Hiya Kaya campaign was photographed in various locations throughout South Africa.
In subsequent collections, Mnisi inched toward his current aesthetic, which is a bold and joyful celebration of pattern, shape, and bright color. A scroll through his Instagram feed is a reminder that fashion is more than the creation of garments, it’s a process of storytelling; an investigation (and expression) of the self. From animal prints and citrus-toned checked suits to bell-sleeved dresses, layers of tulle, and exaggerated shoulders that are the definition of power dressing, Mnisi’s work is an announcement that he, and whoever wears his clothes, is here.
“I create from a place of confidence,” Mnisi says. “I grew up a very shy person and once I started getting into fashion, it became an outlet for me to be able to explore this other side of myself. It was almost as though it was my alter ego showing up and showing off.”
A celebration of the strength and beauty of the women in the VaTsonga tribe, the Hiya Kaya collection draws on Mnisi’s heritage, turning its essence into wearable art.
Mnisi also uses his designs, and the campaigns that accompany each collection, to celebrate the heritage of various African tribes (Mnisi is a member of the VaTsonga tribe), incorporating shapes, colors, and patterns inspired by the history and culture of his native region. He also takes inspiration from his family. His current collection, Ku Hahama, is inspired by a dream his mother had about a snake. “My entire family is terrified of snakes,” Mnisi says with a laugh, “but when my mother told me about this dream she had and how beautiful the snake was in the dream, I started thinking about the idea of duality and how beauty can come from pain and pain can come from beauty.”
FROM LEFT: A look from Mnisi’s 2021 Ku Hahama transseasonal collection, which was inspired by a dream his mother had about a beautiful snake on her back; the dream led Mnisi to contemplate the concept of duality: light and darkness, dreams and nightmares. A shot from the Ku Hahama campaign.
Mnisi explored this idea further in his first full furniture collection, which launches on September 23 and is an extension of Ku Hahama. In 2018, Southern Guild—a South Africa–based furniture and design group with a gallery in Cape Town—asked Mnisi to design a chaise and a stool that complemented his Nwa-Mulamula (meaning “the Guardian”) runway collection, named for his late great-grandmother.
The new furniture line, Nyoka, presented through Southern Guild, will include rugs, a chandelier, chairs, chaise lounges, and more. “The chandelier was the scariest part for me!” Mnisi says of the complicated bronze-and-resin piece. Collaborations with several regional artisans were crucial to Mnisi’s process and further his mission to promote craft and South African handwork in his practice. As a result, he says, “this collection feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
Mnisi will be putting out a fashion collection this fall but is staying tight-lipped about it. What he has revealed is that he is no longer interested in subscribing to the traditional Eurocentric fashion seasons. “I’m designing for Africa, so it makes sense to design for the people who live here and the way that they wear and use clothing,” he says.
Furniture designed by Mnisi for Southern Guild, a South Africa–based furniture and design group with a gallery in Cape Town. Titled Nwa-Mulamula, the collection is inspired by Mnisi’s late great-grandmother. Photographs: Southern Guild.
His design approach is similarly nonconformist. “I used to be anxious that being a designer meant that you had to design a certain way,” he says. “Sketch, post the drawing up, look at it, refine . . . but that doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I design by writing out outfit descriptions in Excel, other times I’ll be inspired by a song and just start sketching. I only recently came to terms with the idea that there isn’t a set way of approaching the design process.”
Whatever Mnisi is doing, it’s working. In 2019, he was named Emerging Designer of the Year at Essence’s Best in Black Fashion Awards and inducted into the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2019. “I find that a looser approach allows for things to happen naturally,” he muses. “You can really develop your aesthetic when there are no restrictions around you.”