More than clothes.
When I was younger I read the “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen. The folktale is about an emperor who is so obsessed with fashion he gets duped into buying ‘clothes that are invisible to stupid people’. Long story short, the emperor ends up parading around the city naked until a child points out that – ‘the emperor has no clothes’. Interestingly, in the same week I read Andersen’s story, we were we shown images of King Shaka and King Lobengula in our History class. I couldn’t help but notice that the king and his subjects had nothing on except spears and loin cloths. Since then my adolescent mind had unconsciously associated images of Africans in tribal outfits with nakedness, shame and stupidity. A sentiment that was further exacerbated by my exposure to contrasting portraits / paintings of Europeans draped in crowns, gowns, jewels and furs – in my Art lessons. It would take a long time to unlearn these childish misconceptions, but I first became aware of their presence when I saw a picture of an outfit designed by Zana Kay.
Born Nomakhosazana Khanyile Ncube, Zana Kay is a former Miss Bulawayo Queen and Miss Zimbabwe Tourism first princess. She studied architecture at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), all the while nurturing the idea of putting tribal fashion on the global stage. In 2013 she hatched the concept of “A Tribe Called Zimbabwe” but it wasn’t until 2018 when she officially launched the brand. It took a long time to launch because people like myself – that had grown up seeing Africans in tribal outfits dancing at cultural shows or in documentaries – needed convincing that cow hides could be fashionable in the digital age. Fortunately for Zana the year she launched her brand, the afro-futurist film “Black Panther” had efficiently ‘wakandafied’ African tribal clothes globally (and won an Oscar for it). Tribal outfits were now cosplay. That’s round about the time Instagram decided to feed me a picture of a tribal outfit from a local designer called, “A Tribe Called Zimbabwe”. The designs I saw on her profile looked familiar, wearable, ‘ethnic’, dope but most importantly – they did not trigger childhood notions of shame and nakedness.
Today “A Tribe Called Zimbabwe” has won the Bulawayo Arts Award (BAA) for outstanding fashion designer and Zana has become a well know Cultural Activist. Her designs have shown Zimbabweans that with dedication, passion and creativity we can turn something as traditional and raw as cow hides into a product that is fashionable and relevant. And for me her, designs exposed the cultural preconceptions I am still unlearning – this why I decided to talk to her about the inspiration behind her brand.
AG: I often refer to your brand as “The Hide” because of your use of cow hides. It stands out for me. Not to steal your thunder, but in your opinion what makes ‘The Hide’ brand different from all other African designers?
ZK: “The Hide”, interesting (laughs). Yes I agree with you that my use of cow hides makes my brand different. However, what you need to know is that every cow skin is different from another. It’s their signature and it can’t be duplicated. Therefore, when I get a new skin it’s like a new material, a new piece of cloth with a new texture. It can’t be turned into the same outfit I made yesterday just like that. “The hide” has to inspire me and tell me what wants to be. So, because of this unique material and the fact that our products are handmade, what makes my brand different is that our outfits are always a ‘one-of-one’. When you buy our products, you alone have that exact piece.
AG: Besides cow hides you also work with goat and sheep hides, and leather. You grew up in the city, why did you choose to work with such difficult materials often seen as backward and rural?
ZK: I never thought of them as difficult materials – just misunderstood. I feel it’s dangerous to foster a mindset of looking at something and judging it at face value. Hides are not difficult. What I see when I look at them are the beautiful things I can make. I focus on that! I guess that’s why they called out to me and I answered. You know, often times even the cow hide itself can be very stubborn and needs convincing that it’s beautiful and relevant. But when I set my mind on something I get fixated on understanding it and making it work. Often times so called difficult materials like cow hides, stone and concrete can be worked with to produce beautiful surprises.
JP: In Zimbabwe working with hides and leather is usually a male dominated process. What’s it like navigating these ‘macho’ industries often associated with specific traditions?
ZK: Being in none traditional spaces has become second nature to me. Ever since I was a teenager I studied in predominantly male spaces. I was the only girl in my architecture class and when I was on attachment I was the only woman in the architectural office. Later after I graduated I was employed as the only female at the design office. As such, all my work colleagues are male. Furthermore, when I go out the office to construction sites, they are also male dominated. So I can say I have grown accustomed to sailing through “macho” spaces (laughs). So when I ventured into the leather industry I didn’t feel intimidated or inhibited in any way. It’s like any other work day.
AG: I’m sure your background as a former beauty queen also assists you in articulating your ideas confidently no matter what kind of space you are in. One thing I noticed that both you (through Tribe) and the beauty / fashion industries are doing is “reclaiming” their Africanness. Why do you think this is so important nowadays?
ZK: Black lives matter, African lives matter, representation matters! It’s important that Africans – their faces, voices, bodies, languages, hair, food, clothes and experiences – are represented in the media. The media helped frame a huge part of our understanding of “Self” when we were young impressionable youths. It endorsed and popularized the idea that ‘white is better’. We need to destroy that corrosive notion and let every African youth know that they are worthy, they belong to a rich history, and their uniqueness is valid. For us adults, with previously formed ideas of beauty – our reclaiming of our Africanness helps us reconnect with our fuller selves. Signing into our culture can help repair the damage caused by these false ideas implanted by colonialists. And it’s not just Africans, everyone needs to know they are beautiful as they are.
AG: We all need to claim our crowns, right? I’ve heard you call yourself “the Tribe Queen”. Africans on the continent and in the diaspora seem to be pre-occupied with royalty – why do you think this is the case?
ZK: Yes I am ‘the Tribe Queen’ (laughs). But I don’t agree with you on one point. I don’t think “pre-occupied” is the right term. To say we are “per-occupied” alludes that we like to fantasize. Most fantasies are created out of thin air. We are not deluding each other, we are remembering who we were before we were rudely interrupted by colonial occupiers. Some of us were Kings and Queens, some of us were warriors, generals, traders, farmers, intellectuals and so forth. I think we are attracted to the crown and what it represents. It represents a dynasty, our roots, culture and heritage. It’s something to be proud off and celebrate. The wearing of the crown says – we had beautiful functional political structures that gave us a sense of belonging to a wealth generating community. Being that kind of African Queen is inspirational and spiritually uplifting, that’s why we engage with it.
JP: One place that you can be an African Queen, even if it’s just for a day, is when you get married. These days it’s fashionable to have a traditional “lobola” wedding instead of a “white” / church wedding. As a result your hides are becoming the new wedding dress. What are you thoughts on this trend?
ZK: It’s sad that it’s actually a “trend”. It should be a norm! You know a ‘white’ wedding is also a traditional wedding for church going people of European descent. For a significant part of the West, church weddings are the only tradition matrimonial rituals they practice. However, when we hear the word “lobola” we think in black and white. “Lobola” is a term that refers to the traditional processes and rituals performed by African families to formalized a spousal relationship. It’s a wedding! The problem is we were (and are) taught that white is good and black is bad. So any cultural rituals performed by African people are often seen bad or illegitimate. However, despite this undermining of Africanness, “Lobola” ceremonies have survived till today. Interestingly, cattle in my culture plays a similar role as a diamond ring in Western cultures. It’s a gift given as a sign of commitment and it’s often an expensive gift (laughs). What bothers me about this trend though is that a lot of African families observe the “lobola” rituals but later on ask for a “uMtshado” (a white wedding). Some Africans still view the “lobola” ceremony as a ‘kinda’ wedding and a white wedding (even if it’s not in a church) is a ‘real’ wedding – that solidifies the union. Even so, I’m happy that people are beginning to warm up to their culture and don “A Tribe Called Zimbabwe” outfits at their weddings. However, I pray that this becomes more than a trend. It must become a genuine cultural awakening.
AG: I think social media has really pushed this cultural wedding dress to the masses. However, I know this sounds bad, but when I see pictures of couples in matching loin cloths on IG, I can’t help but feel their a bit ‘costume-y’. By that I mean I don’t think we have reached that everyday hide apparel stage that our forefathers were accustomed to. Do you think that hides will ever make a comeback?
ZK: Oh wow, I would make so much money (laughs). But honestly I don’t think so. While I do believe in preserving and promoting our culture, I do believe culture is dynamic. We live in different times with different roles and jobs. Leather and hides can’t be laundered everyday like cotton or jeans. Also, think of the animals! How many would be killed unnecessarily to cater for our ever growing population’s fashion wants. What we can do is innovate how we infuse cow hides into everyday items for the next generation. I know they are already turning recycled plastic into a fabric so I’m sure we can also demonstrate that our culture is also capable of evolving in a unique and beautiful way. We must think of it as creating motifs, symbols and representations of who we are and where we are from. Rather than fully re-enacting the past. For example, we have seen Ndebele prints, Ghanaian prints, Ankara and so on enter the world stage. That too is culture on cotton that has been appropriated by high street brands. I’m sure we can also find a way to carry indigenous materials into the mainstream.
JP: One way I’ve seen hides enter the mainstream is at events. In Bulawayo celebrities and socialites often wear traditional outfits at award ceremonies. For instance, Afropop icon Sandra Nbebele has worn “The Hide” at the BAAs. Zimbos never used to dress up for events but now some do. What has changed?
ZK: Cultural awareness. Our generation is becoming very curious about their public image as well as their roots. This ‘wokeness’ and retracing of our forebearers steps has made us see the beauty and value of our selves – and it shows in how we dress. We are questioning some of the fashion ideas that were given to us via pop culture and this has translated to what kinds of outfits we choose to wear at events. Influencers are using their clothes to make a statement to their peers and the world at large about who they are and what they value.
AG: At the BAA’s you wore two outfits. First a gown by South African designer Quiteria Atelier, then your own design inspired by Queen Ramonda from “Black Panther”. Who, or what else inspires you?
ZK: I’m a big people-watcher. I can sit in my car for hours watching people as they walk past going about their lives. I try to figure out everyone’s story by the way they are dressed, the way they walk and their general demeanour. Even as a student I loved sitting in the far back of the room. Somewhere where I had a panoramic view of everything and everybody. I needed to watch and figure people out. Their behaviour and mannerisms and all. What makes them tick. Human beings never stops seeking growth and evolution. As they grow they consciously and unconsciously embrace and re-interpret their culture. I guess in a way I like observing our micro culture. So to answer your question, the people of Zimbabwe inspire me. I’m inspired by our culture. Even the name of my brand was inspired by the beautiful tribes of Zimbabwe and my desire to somehow represent all of them.
AG: We’ve spent some time talking about Zana Kay “The Tribe Queen” and very little about least explored aspect of you – Nomakhosazana Ncube, the Architect. So my last question is – which building/s designed by Zanakay Creations are you most proud of?
ZK: You know what, I do think my architectural work has taken a small step back lately because most of my focus has been on establishing the Tribe brand. I suck at losing so it’s important for me to make sure the brand is healthy, fed, cruising and can stand on its feet when I’m not around (laughs). However, architecture is my first love, and I can’t wait to be neck deep in drawings again – especially something cultural. I love heritage buildings because they speak to my love for the people. So I would have to say The T.G Silundika Cultural Center in Bulilimamangwe and Ndebele Cultural Village are my favourite projects.