South African designer Sindiso Khumalo made her debut at Milan Fashion Week with a collection based on American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
With the pandemic keeping many presentations digital, Khumalo’s namesake label presented a fashion film to feature the new collection and honor the life of Tubman, who used the Underground Railroad to free dozens of slaves after reaching her own freedom in Philadelphia. The film shows a model wandering through fields and farmland, hinting at the landscape Tubman might have known as a child.
The collection, “Minty,” titled after Tubman’s childhood nickname, features illustrations by Cape Town artist Shakil Solanki and tailored styles in hand-printed silk taffeta and handwoven cotton from Khumalo’s workshop in Burkina Faso. Khumalo’s brand also works with the NGO Embrace Dignity to employ women who were previously in sex work to hand crochet and embroider garment details.
Khumalo, who earlier this year was one of the joint finalists to share the €300k ($352k) LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, along with London-based Priya Ahluwalia, focuses each of her collections on the life of a historical Black woman.
Her previous collection highlighted the Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was taken as a prisoner of war as a child and spent many years in the British Royal household under Queen Victoria. Her next collection will be inspired by South African activist Charlotte Maxeke.
“As a Black woman I want to make sure that we’re also part of history,” Khumalo said over a video call. “Harriet Tubman was my height — she was tiny — and freed 70 slaves. I want my kids to know that there were superheroes who were Black and female and petite.”
Having studied architecture at the University of Cape Town, Khumalo worked with lauded architect David Adjaye in London, where she also completed a masters in textiles at Central Saint Martins before returning to establish her label back in South Africa.
We caught up with Khumalo about her collection and presenting her work at Milan Fashion Week for the first time.
CNN Style: What do you want to communicate through your label?
Sindiso Khumalo: I am paying homage to specific Black women from a specific time in history to ensure their stories are told. I can’t believe there are some South Africans who don’t know who Harriet Tubman is. I want to educate people on Black culture and Black history and I think it’s really important that I use my platform to educate, and to bring hope as well. I feel like if I share these stories, people will feel like they can make some change, even if it’s small. It’s important for us to have these role models and talk about them because they are icons of our history.
Another reason I choose these women is to highlight the violence Black women experience, and the violence they experienced in the 1800s. We are still experiencing the same violence today with Uyinene Mrwetyana in South Africa and Breonna Taylor in America — there’s just this violence towards Black women that we have to address.
Why did you choose Harriet Tubman as your inspiration for your Spring-Summer 2021 collection?
In every collection I hint at the next muse. I was studying Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Harriet came through in some of the research I was doing. I embroidered Harriet on one of the dresses from Autumn-Winter. For Harriet actually there’s a lot more work to be done so I think she will have two collections.
I don’t look for the muse, it feels like we find each other in the process. The muse will always be a female and she will always be Black and she’ll always be from a specific time in history.
There are so many women who haven’t had their story told — Bonetta had the most extraordinary life, and when I was telling people about her, no one knew who she was.
What are some of the details in the collection that relate to Tubman’s life?
One of the first details is that we worked with this artist Shakil Solanki on making hand-printed designs of cotton plants. I wanted to imagine Harriet in her Sunday best, but she’s six years old — my son is six — picking cotton on a plantation in the sun. I wanted to portray the darkness in a very compelling way so I asked Shakil to paint the most beautiful cotton plant he could make. These plantations were beautiful with lovely homes and well-dressed women. But (the designs) are also a reminder that this is the plant that a six-year-old girl was picking. It’s a beautiful plant but it has a very dark history.
Sometimes when we talk about slavery, we abstract things so much that you don’t actually understand the human story there. I’m a mum — the idea of a child picking cotton is just repulsive to me. It’s not just slavery, but the human story within that.
The other way I brought her into the collection is through her name. Philadelphia was such a crucial part of her life, and when she was there she named herself Harriet after her mother. She was born Araminta, Minty for short. But on the garments it’s Harriet because that’s what she named herself. We included the Philadelphia Fleabane, which was the first wildflower she would have seen crossing into freedom.
Did you find that the limitations of this year’s Fashion Week allowed for more creative expression?
We’ve never made a fashion film before. We’ve never had a reason to. It’s a very different thing from the stills. Strangely there’s a small town called Philadelphia outside of Cape Town, and Philadelphia was the borderline where Harriet stepped into her freedom, so we wanted to tell that story.
I don’t think I could have made the same statement in a (runway) show. And that I think is the joy of everything slowing down—everyone has had to sit and watch and engage. Fashion week is a flurry—everyone’s going from show to show to show and you’re just hoping somebody sees your stuff. Maybe from now on we’ll always have a film to go with the collection because it’s a way for people to really go deeper and understand our message.
Tell me more about the NGO you partnered with for this collection.
I’ve been working with Embrace Dignity for a few months now. They work with women in Cape Town who are former sex workers and place them with work that is safe and non-exploitative.
We actually train these women up in our studio in crochet and hand embroidery. For me, it’s also about imparting a skill that they can also use themselves because in Cape Town we have a tourist market. It’s a combination of giving them a safe place to work, a non-judgemental place, and then also giving them a skill that they can then use. Everybody needs the chance at a second chapter — we have so much poverty in South Africa.
I like to think of myself as a bit of a modern-day Robin Hood. I sell these luxury clothes and then try to make some kind of change within a community. I think people get overwhelmed and they feel like they can’t change anything, but I look at icons like Harriet Tubman and Nelson Mandela and I think you can make a change. You have to do something, even if it’s small.