To Tina Ngxokolo, fashion is not just what you wear: it’s who you are, it’s how you think, it’s what you want to become. Tina expresses her love and reverence for Xhosa culture, with garments that effortlessly blend modern design aesthetics with the richness of her traditional, artisanal legacy. We were lucky enough to catch up with her, at the Maxhosa Africa studios workshop in Village Deep, Jozi.
When asked what inspired her to start a business, Tina credits the passion, endurance, and fierce ingenuity of her mother. “Mom was definitely the biggest influence: our mother woke up every day, created something, and sold it – that’s the structure we always understood.” She taught them how to make unique textiles with her knitting machine, and encouraged Tina to sew ambitious designs, using old blankets and bed sheets. Her mom used to revel in actively nurturing their imaginations, saving what little she had to buy paints and art supplies.
“We used to literally draw on the walls! She saw nothing wrong with that, she’d say, ‘Express yourself!’ and I had big, beautiful murals all over the house – even in the lounge. The neighbors were shocked! She would say, ‘They’re artists. I will not stop my kids from expressing themselves.’ She was just that kind of mom, she was smart and brave.”
When Tina was only 17, her mother passed away suddenly, leaving her and her three younger siblings destitute and grief stricken. When she instinctively followed in her mom’s creative footsteps, in order to survive, Tina realised what her true inheritance had been: “I lost my mom, but I had this skill, this passion, this foundation of culture, of appreciating and acknowledging our heritage – that was the main thing she left us. And it gave me the independence to make things happen for us.”
So, to put her and her siblings through school, Tina used the sewing machine her mom gave her when she was 11, and continued to make garments and alterations for her growing clientele. “Because she left us with this artistry and passion, because we had her drive, we never asked for handouts, but made our creativity literally sustain us. We were never a charity case.” Once her siblings had entered and thrived at University, she had an opportunity to study Fashion Design at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
Having run her own business since childhood, Tina struggles to pinpoint when exactly her brand was born. Currently, she is working with her brother, Laduma, as the Atelier Creative Director and Production Manager for Maxhosa Africa, a global design studio and heritage, luxury brand – while continuing to explore her vast creative prowess, under her own name. “Culture is the most important thing to me, which is why it is so easy for me to collaborate with my brother, and still express my vision for my own brand.”
Her clothing evokes the traditional dress and dynamism of the Xhosa aesthetic, in a modern translation that speaks to all women. The vibrant showroom is a kaleidoscope of wearable art: from mind-bendingly intricate beadwork, to voluminous haute couture gowns, to her upbeat range of electric, geometric knitwear. “I have always been passionate about the execution, because no one is going to wear a sketch. It has to come to life, it has to feel flattering, and add something to that woman’s values, regardless of her background.”
Now, Tina is a mother of 2, and is crafting her own legacy for them: distilling the same independence of spirit and respect for tradition her mother gave her, and enriching it with lessons from her own journey. “My son is 12, and when I launched my line he said, ‘Mom, I’m so proud of you! You did this on your own, for yourself!’. He is so amazing, and he’s looking up to me – he wants me to be so successful, so strong, so woke, so dope. I take him very seriously,” she laughs.
The labour-intensive nature of the fashion industry means long hours away from her children – a reality for all mompreneurs, and the most challenging aspect of her hard-won success. She says, “It comes with heavy emotional tolls – with this type of detailed, handmade collection, you have to put in the hours, there is no other way. So I really miss my kids – being a mom is actually a third full-time job!”
When asked what she would do differently if she could go back in time, she chuckles “I think most women struggle with this: I would really believe in myself, without having an ego, but believe I am the best, I can do this, I have more talent than I can even imagine. It’s going to start there – what you really believe in – and what you believe in, sets the vision alight.”