Historical/vintage costumer Khensani Mohlatlole is a compelling figure at the intersection of South African fashion and sustainability. Last year, this YouTuber, fashion journalist, content creator and designer won the annual Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards’ Influencer Award, an accolade that recognises ‘a personality or influencer that produces content that promotes slow fashion’. Most recently, the Johannesburg-based all-rounder created an intricately beaded and smocked gown paying homage to her Tsonga and Pedi ancestry.
We spoke to Mohlatlole to find out more about her love of fashion, creating sustainable, historically influenced pieces (including her incredible Tsonga Fantasy Gown), and how Jozi influences her approach.
When and how did your interest in fashion begin?
I’ve been interested in fashion pretty much my whole life. Both my parents are very meticulous about their appearance. My dad was super-specific about the fit and cut of his suits and my mom regards looking nice as basic good manners. I started sewing in high school after watching lots of YouTube tutorials but I went to fashion school for a more formal education.
How do you balance preserving historical authenticity with sustainable practices?
The cool thing about most historical fashion is that it is pretty sustainable. The way clothing was made before the Industrial Revolution, or the advent of mass-manufactured clothing, and even before the sewing machine was invented, really treasured fabric, durability and craft. A lot of what we consider slow or sustainable fashion now was just fashion in previous time periods. From historical fashion I’ve learnt things like laying out patterns in a way that minimises waste, flat-lining garments so alterations can easily be made at any point, making sure a garment can survive the laundering process, adapting older clothes to new and changing trends, and being meticulous about trim and embellishment.
Where do you find your inspiration for your projects?
My research process is kind of all over the place, not unlike my brain! Some projects are inspired by media, like historical romance movies or fantasy shows. Others depend on the books I’m reading, which can be anything from history and anthropology to fashion textbooks and old magazines.
At the moment, my main area of interest is African fashion history, so most of my research looks to precolonial dress traditions, fashion under colonialism, cultural crafts, ideas around beauty and adorning the body, the origins of what we now consider traditional or ethnic dress, and so on. There isn’t a consolidated wealth of information on this, so I look at everything from Pinterest and Instagram to artworks and really old books – and just asking around, sometimes.
You recently created the magnificent Tsonga Fantasy Gown. Tell us about this project.
For Heritage Day this year, I wanted to make a gown that related to my Tsonga and Pedi ancestry. I’ve actually been thinking about this for years but for the longest time I didn’t feel like I had enough information on what ethnic dress for my culture was, especially concerning what that might have looked like pre-colonisation. But this year I decided that waiting to have all the facts was just going to keep me in stasis, and I really wanted to challenge myself by trying out new techniques.
The gown is in two parts: a zebra-print hand-smocked cotton shift worn under a cotton gown made from a batik print used in traditional Tsonga clothing. I taught myself English smocking, which was a struggle because most instructions are not written for left-handed people! For the gown, a lot of Tsonga and Pedi fashion is very colourful, so I wanted to take this further by embellishing it with hand embroidery. I drew from the embroidery style done at Kaross, a Limpopo-based group of VaTsonga artisans who create some of the most beautiful textiles I’ve ever seen. I also looked to traditional Yoruba, Ethiopian and Ghanaian beading and embroidery. My crocodile motifs were inspired by Pedi rock art. I also drew from the figures present in a lot of Tsonga folklore, like lions, leopards and snakes. My grandmother had the most beautiful garden in Limpopo, so I added in the marula trees that remind me of her and her house, as well other indigenous plants, like flame lilies and desert roses.
I spent at least 70 hours - but probably a lot more - on this. I’ve never done so much hand embellishment before, and I really wanted to challenge myself to try new things, like making my own buttons, and sashiko embroidery, which is a Japanese technique.
The whole project taught me a lot about what is authentic African fashion in that I’ve come to accept that the ways in which we’ve adapted, assimilated and appropriated colonialism, modernity and colonisation are just as much our own creations and points of celebration as the products and ideas independent of those factors.
How has the city of Johannesburg influenced your approach to style and fashion?
The multicultural, eclectic nature of the city has made the most impact on me. My personal style is a mix of a lot of very different and sometimes oppositional ideas and references – I draw inspiration from many different places and people, and then jumble them all together into a collage of something new, which is the best way I could describe Johannesburg.
If you could have any job or work on any project, what would it be?
One of my dream jobs would be making elaborate costumes, with lots of research and slow, laborious techniques, and sharing that with the world. Another would be archiving and restoring vintage and antique clothing. I’d also love to teach needlecraft to children.
What’s up next for you?
I’m not sure yet. I pretty much let the wind point me in a new direction but I’m making great progress in my research of African fashion history and sharing my findings on TikTok and Instagram. I’ll probably make a very silly and fun Halloween costume soon. And hopefully I’ll enter a cosplay contest before the year ends.
Photographs: Khensani Mohlatlole.