14 Sep 2023 ///

MUNKUS: Thando Ntuli On Fostering Her Label’s Intergenerational Dress Codes

Thando Ntuli’s label MUNKUS was only conceived in 2019, yet it has become one of the most prized (literally) and lauded contemporary fashion brands in South Africa. Thando’s initial accolades include ‘Most Fashionable Commercial Range award’ from Truworths in 2019, the ‘All Sourcing Designer of the Year’ in 2021 and both of Design Indaba and Glamour Magazine’s ‘Emerging Creative of the Year’. Last year, MUNKUS won SA Fashion Week New Talent search. In a span of just four years, Thando’s vision as a designer and entrepreneur has made itself abundantly known. To me, most pressingly, is Thando’s incredible technical abilities as a designer, that seed MUNKUS boast one of the strongest articulations of construction in South African fashion. 

Embedded in the MUNKUS brand DNA is the conception of intergenerational dressing. Drawing from her Sowetan upbringing surrounded by impeccably stylish women, Thando says “fashion has always been an expression of who I am. Coming from an art background, being into anime, I always wanted to express myself the way I saw those characters, people and colours. I grew up seeing my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother have amazing style. The way I knew it was amazing, was that I was the ‘thief’ in the house! I was always able to style and wear their pieces despite the age or size differences. It really worked because their pieces were so beautiful and trendy.” It’s for this reason that MUNKUS references nostalgia but in the most subtle way; the brand is described as paying homage to the sartorial sensibilities of township culture in the 1980s and 1990s, but through an incredibly sharp, modern lens. From a family of creatives, Thando’s family is not only the inspiration for the garments themselves; they’re the reason she became a designer. As Thando explains, “my family always knew I was going to do something creative. My older brother, who is an art director and HOG, opened the floor for me. He was like, ‘I’m gonna tell everyone that I’m doing something crazy’ so by the time I did it, everyone had gotten used to the idea of a creatively driven career. When I left school I had considered being a paediatrician, but my mom and grandmother swiftly reminded me that I’d always loved fashion, why not try design? My family’s support is a big influence in my work.”

MUNKUS AW23 Shot by Pierre Van Vuuren

MUNKUS shot by Steve Tanchel for SMag

MUNKUS SS22 Shot by Pierre Van Vuuren

The MUNKUS vision for dressing is due to Thando’s deeply thoughtful approach to her customers, “growing up as a millennial / Gen Z’s, we have been bombarded with ideas of sustainability. I wanted to take a different approach through MUNKUS. I wanted to make garments that looked good for my mom, for my gran, for me – I wanted MUNKUS to showcase heirlooms, multiple ways of dressing to impact the mindfulness of the wearer on how to dress. Through linking their stories and my story together through the label, our vision for sustainability at MUNKUS is to go back to the practice of how we wear clothing and why.” 

One of the most striking aspects of MUNKUS is the layering; highly-developed pieces that stand-alone with strength or can compose an entire look are integral to the brand’s offering. On the runway, one never knows what to expect. I will always stand by my sentiment that layering is one of the highest ideals of style. To be able to layer is an artform. To be able to weave layering into the construction manifesto of your brand, is mastery. Thando explains that modesty was her initial, personal segue into layering, “layering began as part of my faith – I am muslim and I’m the only one in my family now – so the concept of layering was a means to dress myself with multiple options for expression. When envisioning MUNKUS, I wanted that to be part of it but I didn’t want to limit any of our customers to how I would wear the pieces. So the layering serves as a versatile way to make up the way you want to wear our pieces. If you want to dress up more and be more covered, you can – if you want to let it out and show more skin and feel confident too, then you can. MUNKUS is about finding who you are and what your style is, but me giving you the option of pieces that are truly dynamic.” 

This kind of deep interest in the autonomy and freedom of her customers is such an incredible quality; in our conversation, I ask Thando what style has become to her as she’s developed as a designer? To which Thando says, “I think style is so much more about understanding who we are as individuals or in our communities. Trends are useful, we get to see what’s available, but ultimately style is an intimate process through fashion of self-realisation. For us it’s about allowing the customer the space to do that freely without imposing our ideas of how our pieces should be worn.” In terms of process regarding creating multiple pieces (more than most designers would ever attempt for runway shows), to which Thando explains that “the way that I design is not necessarily what goes down the runway, I don’t think necessarily about combinations until I have conceived of multiple, individual pieces. Then at the end, we get to the play and switch things out. The way we end up showcasing in Nigeria would be different to South Africa, for example, because I’m always thinking of the audiences and personalising MUNKUS to them.”

It’s only four years in, yet Thando’s MUNKUS is set to become a formidable, boundless asset to fashion in Africa and internationally. Thando says “I’m trying to push myself so much more with structure and construction. It becomes so technical and that’s my happy space; getting nerdy about draping, seams and silhouettes. I’m focused on developing what I know and testing what I can learn from basic patterns blocks to where the label is now. I’m trying to do many styles that can work on different bodies, that will always be a focus for me.” To wear MUNKUS is to be enveloped in shades of colour – warmth, coolness, rich and bright – Thando explains that, “I love colour! Colour is life, colour is emotion in reality. I am an emotional person. Colour is an amplifier in expressing oneself and colours have different seasons, different times to be worn and loved.”

MUNKUS SS23 Campaign Shot by Dicker & Dane

I ask Thando if there are any constraints to being labelled as a ‘luxury’ designer. I think of journalist Suzy Menkes who said in an interview that she feels fashion needs a new word; luxury can be stiffening and require all sorts of projects. What about quality and freedom as inherent to fashion, without it being luxury? To this, Thando says “I never intended for MUNKUS to be ‘luxury’ but I think in the context of South Africa, it is luxury. Being a young designer is really challenging here. Our resources and manufacturing structure is so weak. It wasn’t always this way, especially when it comes to sourcing fabric or finding the right manufactures. So often pricing finds itself at luxury levels because of the roadblocks that were faced to get a garment to a highly constructed, well-made, quality piece.” Finally, Thando sums up MUNKUS and its role in South Africa’s burgeoning fashion scene, “MUNKUS is a family affair. That speaks to my own family, but also the energy in South African design right now. We are being shown to the world and I really hope we can continue to create an industry with customers and community-members that appreciate hand-skilled craftsmanship.”

Written by: Holly Beaton

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

You May Also Like