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Fundudzi merges modern sustainability with traditional African inspirations.
This story first appeared in the June 25, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Not many fashion labels can say they were named after a sacred lake in Africa where, legend has it, one can still hear the ancestors of the Venda tribe drumming beneath the water at night. And not many fashion labels can successfully meld ancient tradition with cutting edge innovation and land a major international exhibition called “Fabric for Thought” in Copenhagen’s Koldinghus Museum, alongside Diane von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta. But then not many fashion labels are as simultaneously Afrocentric and forward-looking as Fundudzi. Launched four years ago to much acclaim during Cape Town Fashion Week, Fundudzi—whose namesake is the largest freshwater lake in the mountainous north of South Africa—is the brainchild of Craig Jacobs, a Johannesburg-based fashion entrepreneur and marketing professional who doubles as a journalist and society observer with a regular column in the social pages of the South African Sunday Times.
Jacobs, who studied sociology, believes that fashion is a form of communication. “Your clothes say a lot about you—what you wear and how you wear it,” he says. “It shows what you are intrigued by.” Ecological awareness, environmental preservation and sustainability are clearly philosophies that do more than intrigue Jacobs; they drive him and his label. “It is clothing with a conscience,” he says. He is acutely aware of the eco trend, although for him it is not just the fashion world’s flavor of the moment, but a do-able, enduring lifestyle choice. “Africa has always been organic,” he declares. “I mean, Africa is the world’s oldest continent. It all started here, really. People don’t always realize that.” What Fundudzi does, he continues, is “celebrate Africa. We take very traditional techniques in terms of dressing and interpret them in a modern way.
Not just in terms of styling, but also in terms of fabrication.” Hence, the traditional African head wrap is expressed as a hood, while layered panels of fabric common in tribalwear inspire wrap dresses. Each item is made in South Africa, from materials sourced from all over the continent. “We have worked with suppliers creating organic fabric out of cotton, of course, and linen, but also of cashmere, bamboo, silk, corn and hemp. Hemp, Jacobs says, is quite a versatile material. “It used to be quite a rigid fabric, a bit like denim, without much tactile quality. But now, with new technological advances, hemp combines beautifully with silk and linen. It has taken on a much more interesting dimension.” The benefits of such a policy are incalculable. “We’re reducing our carbon footprint, for one,” Jacobs explains. It also ensures that communities are uplifted and empowered. “We honor their skills—the beadwork, the embroidery, the trimmings, most of which have been handed down from generation to generation. And we promote emerging design talent through our collaborations with young designers. One such designer is Anisa Mpungwe, who designed Fundudzi’s Paris collection that was part of an official South African Department of Tourism production in July 2007. Mpungwe went on to win the Elle New Talent Award during last year’s Sanlam South African Fashion Week.
In keeping with Jacobs’ belief that fashion is intuitive and responsive “to what is happening in the world today,” Fundudzi’s latest collection, which bowed in June at the first African Fashion Week, is inspired by the indigenous birds of Southern Africa. “Bird populations have been decimated,” he says. “Bird habitats are being ruined through environmental irresponsibility.” But rather than have a literal interpretation of the avian theme, Jacobs has chosen to allow birds—their plumage, flight patterns and movements, for instance—to inspire the construction and colors of the garments. But there’s not a feather in sight. “No feathers, please!” he says. “That would be a cliché.”