GCFA, Italia 2020: Meet Sindiso Khumalo, Winner of the GCFA Best Independent Designer Award

All images credit: Sindiso Khumalo


At the 2020 digital edition of the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, Italia, Cape Town-based sustainable textile designer Sindiso Khumalo was named the recipient of this year’s GCFA Best Independent Designer Award. Here, she shares what this award means to her, the inspiration behind her latest SS21 collection, and why she believes fashion today is about creating real meaningful change.

While 2020 has undeniably thrown its fair share of challenges, for Cape Town, South Africa-based sustainable designer Sindiso Khumalo, it has also in many ways been ‘the most incredible year’. In March, just as COVID-19 forced much of the world to shut down, Khumalo was named a 2020 LVMH Prize finalist; in September she debuted her first Milan Fashion Week solo show (albeit virtually in the form of a beautiful digital presentation film); and this weekend she was announced as the winner of the GCFA Best Independent Designer Award 2020 for her outstanding contribution to the fashion industry.

Chosen by a panel of leading industry figures including Christopher Bevans, Cameron Russell, Hamish Bowles, and Sarah Mower, Khumalo was selected as the GCFA winner from a shortlist of 16 independent designers, who each address the Eco-Age Principles of Sustainable Excellence and CNMI sustainability principles in different ways through their work. For Central St Martins graduate Sindiso Khumalo, who founded her eponymous label in 2015, sustainability, craft and empowerment lie at the heart of the brand’s ethos. Her focus is on creating modern sustainable textiles with a strong emphasis on African storytelling, partnering with NGOs to develop handmade textiles for her collections, providing training and employment for vulnerable women in her native South Africa. 

Accepting the award, which was presented by actress Maisie Williams, Sindiso said: “I started my brand with the premise of being a modern-day Robin Hood: to create luxury clothing that will eventually help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society; to create a change for our continent, and create a new future for our youth.”

For her latest collection, “Minty”, American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman was her muse.  Sharing the film of the collection on her Instagram account, Khumalo said: “Essentially, I feel that we have to look at historical events and figures in order to understand our present.  Violence against black women has been in existence since Harriet Tubman’s time and still exists today with Uyinene Mrwetyana in South Africa, Breonna Taylor in the United States and the Chibok school girls from Nigeria who were stolen by Boko Haram. These events are all linked, and the violence is still rife.

“What I try to do with my collections is to pay homage to women like Harriet Tubman and to all women who have been victims of gender based violence.”

We spoke to Khumalo about the story behind this collection, her sustainable priorities for the brand, and why she feels it is her duty as a designer to make change.

What does winning the Best Independent Designer Award at this year’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards mean to you?

It means a lot! Of course I am gutted I won’t be able to receive it in person. The GCFA is such a beautiful ceremony in the most magical setting in Milano. But I am hugely grateful to be recognised in this way, this is such an amazing moment for our brand. And I dedicate the award to all the amazing artisans we work with. Also with all recognition comes responsibility, and I just want to grow and grow the work we do in getting women in Africa out of abject poverty and into fair, ethical work.

You recently presented your SS21 collection ‘Minty’ at Milan Fashion Week in a beautiful digital film – congratulations! Could you tell us the story behind the collection?

Our SS21 collection is based on our muse, Harriet Tubman, and speaks to her childhood. Named after her childhood name “Minty”, the collection features beautiful hand illustrations of the plants Harriet would have encountered as a child, the cotton plant, and the Philadelphia Fleabane. Beautifully handcrafted by Cape Town artist Shakil Solanki. Shot in Philadelphia, Cape Town it tells the story of a young girl walking freely through the land.

Harriet Tubman was the muse for this collection. What was it about her that inspired your work? 

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and as a child worked on the farm picking cotton. She went on to free herself and then returned 13 times to the Underground Railroad to free over 70 slaves from the Deep South. I feel that’s such an important story to tell and to remind people that even in the most repressive regimes one can still overcome, and also help others. Also I love the idea of telling the story of a fearless, petite black woman who saved 70 slaves in her lifetime. We need these stories right now.

Given the current global conversations about racial injustice, has this collection taken on a new meaning for you?

Yes, I think fashion needs to speak to a moment in history and I do believe my SS21 collection speaks to the pain that black people have suffered over centuries and still today, with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

This year, of course, fashion week has been very different, with presentations taking place digitally. What impact do you think this has had, or might have on future fashion weeks and on the industry as a whole? 

I think it was really special to present a story in a digital format. It’s not something I have ever done before, and I really enjoyed the process. I do believe fashion weeks will take on a new language, broader approaches of showcasing. I hope we don’t lose the fashion films when things open up again, I have really enjoyed the breath of storytelling in this time. 

Were there any challenges in finalising this collection during a global pandemic? 

Logistics was very difficult as our borders were closed with one international flight in and out of South Africa a week. Also I’m a Mum of two so I was homeschooling whilst trying to get our SS21 out. COVID came with its challenges, but it was also a collection I will never forget because of that. 

How did you first get started in sustainable fashion? 

In many ways I have always been interested in sustainability, but it was only when I had children six years ago did I actually ask the questions: “Where does my waste go? What is the impact of this fabric? Who made my clothes?” I think what we leave to the next generation is very much at the core of what we try to do as a business. Looking at both the social and environmental impact of the clothes we make. 

What are your sustainable priorities for your label? 

My interests in sustainability lie mainly in socio economic impact, and poverty alleviation. It is often the poorest communities in the world that are also the most polluted. Whether it’s groundwater contamination, living in proximity to busy roads and highways, and sewage issues. So I do believe by addressing issues of poverty, you are invariably also addressing environmental issues. I feel the social and environmental sides of the sustainability conversation are inextricably linked, and as designers we need to try and address both where we can.

Why is it so important to you to take a community-based approach to your work?

I live in South Africa, with a 30% unemployment and of that 60% is youth unemployment. So I believe it is my duty as a designer to make some change in my country and continent. Fashion today is no longer about just making beautiful clothes, but actually about creating real impactful change through craft and design.