From Hammarsdale to London and Berlin, Nompumelelo Nkomo is taking our beautiful shweshwe fabric to the world. Liam Joyce caught up with her
While growing up, she only wanted to dress herself, but now this local designer is dressing women from across the globe.
Nompumelelo Nkomo, 42, from Hammarsdale, is one of the few South African fashion designers who create pieces using original shweshwe material for her LNK label.
Speaking about her entry on the local and international fashion scene, Nkomo said that it was never easy and still is not.
“When I finished high school I was not too sure what to do.
“I wanted to work in a bank, but at the same time I did not. So, because I loved clothes and studying, I decided to study fashion while I figured out what I really wanted to do as soon as I was done.”
She packed her bags, moved from her humble home and found herself in Johannesburg studying at the Kirsten Academy of Fashion.
Nkomo said designing and sewing was something that came naturally to her, a talent she never knew she had.
Soon people started asking her about the clothes she wore, which were her own designs.
“Wherever I went out, people asked about my clothes and when I would tell them I made them myself, they would ask me to design garments for them,” she said.
After winning R25 000 on Kickstart – a reality show that groomed young entrepreneurs – in 1998, LNK Designs was born.
“It was difficult starting out with my own label, but I am so grateful for the support of my family and my friends.”
Nkomo said she had always been attracted to shweshwe.
“I love its texture, the different patterns and the colours it comes in. I also love its traditional African flare,” she said.
Although she made most of her designs from shweshwe, she also used other material.
“In a world where everyone wants to live a modern lifestyle, it would be silly for me to design with just one material even though my client base for original shweshwe is vast.”
Her success in Europe was something she said she was most proud of, after showcasing her designs at Africa Fashion Week in London and having her designs sell at the Berlin Import Shop in Germany, Nkomo said it was heart-warming to see others embrace an African trend.
Nkomo also spent two months in Italy at the SAE Communicazione Integrata fashion school where she got to work with designers based in Milan.
She hopes to one day own her own studio.
All original shweshwe is manufactured at Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha, near King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, says Da Gama Textiles’ Home Sewing Division spokesman Anwar Vahed.
It is manufactured nowhere else in the world.
After the establishment of the port of Cape Town in 1652, indigo cloth made its way to South Africa. Dye was made from the indigofera group of plants to colour the cloth. Later synthetic indigo dye was created.
Much of the early indigo cloth that entered South Africa was from India and Holland. In the 1840s King Moshoeshoe I of the Sotho people was presented with a gift of indigo-printed cloth, which became popular among locals and became known as shoeshoe after the king, and later shweshwe.
In the Eastern Cape, Xhosa women started incorporating the cloth into their traditional blanket clothing after 1858.
They called the cloth ujamani, or German print, after the Germans who also brought the cloth to South Africa.
The production of indigo discharge fabric started in South Africa only in 1982 when Tootal, a UK-based company, invested in Da Gama Textiles.
It was only in the 1980s that two new colour ways were printed – a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red. Later, more colour ways, such as green, pink and pumpkin, were introduced.
With knock-out items of almost every kind of international fashion house, shweshwe has also been affected by the production of fake manufacturing, but there are ways to tell the fake from the real thing.
Original shweshwe is 100 percent cotton, whereas the other types of shweshwe are polycotton or nylon.
“Original shweshwe is more colourfast and lasts longer. Original shweshwe colours are more vibrant and jewel-like because of the traditional discharge printing method used.
“Colours of the fakes appear flatter, cheaper and less vibrant,” says Vahed.