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Glamour exclusive with architectural and fashion designer Nomakhosazana Ncube

Written by Gilmore Tee

As an autistic child who struggled with speech and only started speaking at 4 and a half years, award-winning designer - Nomakhosazana Khanyile Ncube, remembers being a young timid and antisocial girl who lived in her head. She reckons that her creative journey started from there as she would use her hands to create pieces and drawings that helped express her thoughts. One of her vivid memories is the time she made a shoe out of cardboard and used a glass jam jar for a heel, something her teacher marvelled and showed off to everyone at her primary school in Bulawayo.

“Growing up, we didn’t have much, so I would upcycle trash and make products with whatever I would find in the yard. At the age of 5, all I wanted was to make cool interesting stuff that change the way people see and think of materials. I would draw little mom and dad cards which I sold in class for a dollar in the effort of helping my mother with my school fees.”

As she grew older alongside her 4 siblings and was raised by a single parent, her skillset and aspirations also grew, becoming more refined. Her dream to become an architect came at the age of 9 and was informed by the fact that she stayed in a house that needed a lot of renovations. She would constantly imagine how she could make their house and other bigger buildings better spaces for people to dwell in. Nomakhosazana has always been an individual who wants to see ideas go through to life, hence at tertiary education she held dearly to her childhood dream of pursuing architecture.

She best describes herself as an architectural designer, fashion designer and cultural entrepreneur, amongst other things. Nomakhosazana did her education at Baines Junior School, proceeding to Mzilikazi High School, Bulawayo Polytechnic and then studying Architecture at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. When introducing herself, she likes to simplify everything by saying that she writes, draws, speaks and make things. She is still very much that shy little girl who speaks through her art, voice and writings.

Growing up as a misfit made Nomakhosazana an adult who is comfortable being an outlier. She is curious about pursuing ideas and solutions that challenge one to think outside the box. In a world where there is a lot of social media influence, pressurising people to play along, fit in, roll with a gang or seek validation, her survival tactics as a lonely autistic child have played a huge role in liberating her from negative internal and external pressures.

“I believe that so many times what imprisons us is the visible and invisible arena of voices in our heads that are constantly trying to curate our self-esteem and perspectives. I have a tendency to stray away from group thinking and often end up exploring the unbeaten path when trying to find a solution. Architects and fashion designers are social engineers because spaces and dresses shape culture. Not only do we play the role of interpreting the heartbeat of people, but we interpret their desires and wildest dreams too.”

As a creative designer who works in both architecture and fashion, Nomakhosazana strongly believes that one needs to simultaneously disengage and engage with the world in order to draw rich wide perspectives and come up with interesting innovations. She lives by the saying “you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.” Architecture and fashion definitely became the go-to career choice for her kind of thinking.

“Due to my passion for culture, fashion and writing I found myself in conversations about Africa and how we could make Africa better. A lot of my ideas, readings and concepts try to deal with existential issues in Africa. A dress on a model is interpreted so differently by every individual but the most important thing is that it celebrates the aura of the individual who wears it. That is my approach to architecture, a dress for Africa. I desire to design functional buildings in Africa, buildings that honour the spirit of Africa and solve the existential problems in communities. Buildings that are true to our heritage and history. I started off just wanting to be an architect, but now I am sure I want to specialise in designing heritage, cultural and community spaces such as schools and clinics. Conversely, fashion is also a space that solves the problem of dignity, identity and culture.”

Her work is strongly influenced by her love for African culture, hence she is constantly looking for ways to celebrate Africa in a modern way. A Tribe Called Zimbabwe is driven by the need to demonstrate that culture is a dynamic, beautiful and cultural expression and entrepreneurship is worth a seat at the business table. Nomakhosazana believes that there is urban energy that exists on the motherland that is not being branded and packaged into products. There is a profitable opportunity to build an African brand that celebrates identity and explores creatively what it means to be an African or Zimbabwean in the 21st Century. She believes that women ought to play a role in realising this vision.

Talking about the challenges she comes across in her manipulation of cowhide, cow horns and rope in creating garments, she cites dealing with copycats who are fond of infringing on the hard-earned intellectual property of others for their unethical benefit. She urges fellow designers and creatives to seek legal advice on protecting their work.

We could not part ways with the award-winning designer without asking a few questions to get an inside of her work and lifelong visions:

GLAMOUR: Why do you do what you do?

I love to dream, and I see fabric, cowhide, concrete, steel as the language of expressing my dreams. Being in the business of making fashion or building is a way to communicate that. I love people and am interested in the spaces in which they are found. My dream is to design and bring to life infrastructure and cultural art forms that not only are masterpieces but speak well in the expression of beauty and the uniqueness of Africa.

What are some of the things you admire the most and are proud of with your work?

I admire my unique commitment to try new things and break rules. I am a bit of a perfectionist so I really pay attention to systems, processes and their details. I think it reflects in my work because I am meticulous about every piece, its concept and the process of its creation.

We admire how you innovatively capture culture and madge it with Architecture in your designs, care to share this ideology?

Architecture is in essence the art of creating habitable spaces and in my view, fashion is also the art of creating intimate spaces. Whereas in architecture one would design a space for multiple people or bodies, in fashion one designs a space for one body. A garment is inhabited by one body and a building is a garment that many bodies inhabit. In this regard, I see no difference between the principles in architecture and those in fashion because both are about tectonic, which is the technique of how materials come together.

In your own opinion, what is the future of Zimbabwean and African fashion?

I am proud to say in Zimbabwe we are definitely developing a more authentic voice where cultural fashion expression is concerned. Previously we were not confident of our heritage and we borrowed heavily from West and Southern African cultures. I would love to see more boldness in this direction until we have a somewhat distinct proud fashion identity. I love that Africans are starting to value and support homegrown fashion brands. If we continue to deliberately promote the “Made in Africa “ agenda, African fashion brands will thrive.

Where do you see your brand and works in the next 5 years?

Tribe is a unique brand that intends to carve out its niche in the competitive fashion world and to maintain relevance and creative identity whilst remaining an economically viable business. We are always actively learning first-hand how companies are physically structured and examining the logic behind production systems and business operating systems to enable A Tribe Called Zimbabwe to leapfrog over costly fatal mistakes that often plague start-up companies. Our products have gained a market in USA and Europe creating strategic business relationships that will help us share the “Zimbabwean Royal Experience” with global markets through our products. Our vision is to grow into Zimbabwe and Africa’s centrepiece of Afrocentric Apparel and Interiors, mastering the art of translating our African identity and heritage into relevant modern products.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

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