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Front Row with Cebo Mtshemla

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

Front Row with Cebo Mtshemla

As we continue embarking on our FRM quest for the most unique fashion talent our diaspora has to offer–our next interviewee possesses an incredibly bespoke design thirst and creative pallet; one which I can admit to not experiencing often within our local fashion landscape. Cebo Mtshemla is a Johannesburg-based design enthusiast, wardrobe stylist and fashion creative, yet over everything, I would describe them as a design polymath–in the purest manner possible.

Cebo's work is creatively sparked by their inherent sensitivity & narratively charged by their journey for self-exploration.

Photography by Anele Mtshemla

Alongside their personal design escapades with Lab Grown Studio and more, Cebo works full-time in Graphics, Styling & Digital Communications for the adorned avant-garde South African luxury brand, 'VIVIERS'. Working for such a luxury brand speaks volumes of the complementary nature of the brand matched with the creative; both entities practicing an inherently artisanal approach towards fashion, which is "considered, conceptual, and conscious".

Now, Cebo has managed to start cultivating an incredibly bold, innovative and imaginative design career–which I feel is quite literally impossible to ignore & is destined to thrive within all of its desired facets. One of the many things which managed to stick to my memory from our virtual to-and-fro is Cebo's affinity for modularity, aptly expressed throughout their work with Lab Grown Studio. During our conversation, Cebo mentions:

"In mining, lab-grown diamonds are 100% conflict-free. Lab Grown Studio is an emerging brand that reflects my portfolio, beliefs, previous design work, and ethics. Lab Grown believes in a world where fashion can be innovative, sustainable, and ethical."

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

Cebo's work feels like an artistic interrogation of nuanced human topics expressed through modular design. In our interview, they even mention: "Will I one day start a fashion label? Textile studio? Or a furniture brand. We'll find out!"

And this speaks to that creative malleability which I have previously referenced; the unique ability to innovate and meet design halfway, unchained by genre or medium and remaining as multidisciplinary and creatively limber as possible. So enjoy this ensuing interview which serves as a peak into the brilliance of their mind; inspirations behind their design process like Kilo Kish & Fiona Apple, the relationship between fashion and modularity within their practice, plans for 2024, and more!

Images courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

Would you mind introducing yourself and including a short description of what you do?

CM: I'm Cebo Mtshemla, a design enthusiast, wardrobe stylist and fashion creative that likes the planet & my fashion "slow". Describing myself and what I do is a weird thinga lot of people don't always appreciate this but I try to keep it as vague as possible. Hence "design enthusiast" because that's really all I am! As of nowI work full time working in Graphics, Styling & Digital Communications for a wonderful South African Luxury brand, 'VIVIERS'. It will be two years working for them in April, happy almost VIVIERS anniversary to me! But back to "design enthusiast", I have found it comfortable to define myself in that way as a young creative and recent graduateto give myself room to be multidisciplinary. Will I one day start a fashion label? Textile studio? Or a furniture brand. We'll find out!

What are you most inspired by when it comes to your design process?

CM: I was always called sensitive when I was a child. Which at the time felt like a bad thingbut I have now discovered it's the absolute coolest thing a creative can be. I am very sensitive to anything I am experiencing, or the environment I am in, and I think that is always the root inspiration of my process. Combined with wanting to be silly and not take myself too seriously all the time. I am working on a project in my free time that I would like to showcase mid-year, but all of it is based on my recent visit to Welkom and East London when I spent time with my extended family and felt incredibly grounded and connected ancestrally to who I am.

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

My graduate collection was a reference to personal feelings and thoughts I had been having. I think a question every young person has is: "Who am I and who will I become?" and that was my experience at that time. Beyond being sensitive and soaking my surroundings, all the media I consume finds its way into my process. Referencing the raw sensitivity of Kilo Kish's 'Reflections in Real Time', an album I've loved since I was 15, the whole body of work feels like babbling, intrusive thoughts and journal entries. Same applies for Fiona Apple and Hannah Höch. Sensitivity and resourcefulness. Hannah Höch collaging with a kitchen knife, at home. Howardena Pindell emptying punches from work to create sequin-like pieces, at home. Fiona Apple recording an album with her dogs barking in the background, at home.

While these choices arose from circumstances and are rooted in a history where women often lacked resources to pursue “serious art careers”the beauty lies in their resourceful approach and ability to draw from their surroundings, whilst still forging these paths for themselves.

Resourcefulness, a somewhat slow, crafty, domestic-in-feeling design approach collages my ideas and recent collection themes together. Important to mentionsustainability to me feels like it should be a given for anyone entering this industry. Yes I want to define myself as an ethical creative; more on that when we chat about 'LAB GROWN' but it feels weird to say sometimes because it feels so obvious, at least for me, that everyone should be doing thatand interpreting it into their work.

Photography by Anele Mtshemla

Could you tell me a bit more about Lab Grown?

CM: In mining, lab-grown diamonds are 100% conflict-free. Lab Grown Studio is an emerging brand that reflects my portfolio, beliefs, previous design work, and ethics. Lab Grown believes in a world where fashion can be innovative, sustainable, and ethical. While currently still a bit of a passion project that needs more attention from me, Lab Grown creates pieces that are experimental and modular. Modularity has been an overarching theme for me in my portfoliosomewhat linked to my need to play and not take myself too seriously. Some of it is completely ridiculous, but I think if you allow yourself to be silly you give yourself the opportunity to push to the extreme, then say: "Okay now how does this become practical, commercial, ready-to-wear." I prefer to work UP then down than DOWN then question if it's interesting enough. But Lab Grown, as of now, is my playground. I spent last year sleeping in a probably not so safe room because I was growing kombucha leather under my bedside tablewhich I am very proud of. But it ultimately is a playground to test what sustainable solutions I can explore and how I can push modularity to the MAX.

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

I love seeing how Travel specifically feeds your inspiration and bleeds into your work. For example, your recent trip to Japan! How would you say that Travel influences your design work?

CM: I had mentioned visiting my family and I think this feeds into this answer as well. But Japan was absolutely insane and such an important trip for mealso at the right time. I solo-traveled, which was also completely new but super important to do. Designers I like and reference a lot are Japanese designers, like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, being the more obvious mentions. I needed to see what's in the water"mizu" in Japanesethere. (Yes I'm taking learning Japanese seriously as I want to move there IMMEDIATELY). Everything there is so considered. I sat at a craft gin bar where I watched them take the ice out the freezerand before placing it in my glassshaving it down with a knife into a perfect, precise, beautiful cube. Garnished meticulously, then served to me with the bottle so I could see what gin I was drinking and read about the notes as I sip. It didn't matter where I was, at the tiniest, smallest "Izikaya" or fancy-ish restaurantbut this same consideration was mirrored. Always. There's a sense of pride in everything there. And I think moments like that are so important to experience because it changes your perspective of your own habits and makes you want to carry those experiences in the way you approach your everyday life, and things you create. Also, all Japan taught me is that I don't know how to dress. I think. Everyone was very minimal, with simply cut beautiful clothes, mostly monochromeand I think where the "edge" comes in is a cool haircut. Hair felt like a big visual cue, whereas I feel like in my everyday dressing it's the SHOE, THE HAIRCUT, THE JACKET, ADD A TIE, ADD A THIS, ADD A THAT! Coolness felt way more subtle there and that's an interesting thing to observe. Did I answer the question? I hope so. Overall, traveling was just an exposure thing! And any new experience and learning curve will ultimately weave its way into new concepts I explore.

Photography by Anele Mtshemla

As a fashion graduate–how do you feel the experience has shaped the trajectory of your overall craft today?

CM: Full transparency, studying was an incredibly conflicting experience for me! First year was brilliant. There are literal videos that exist of me on YouTube right now, that I recorded in my first year, telling people to apply to fashion school. It was only conflicting for me because I enjoy pondering and marinatingand it's hard to ponder when you have deadlines. I think the experience was important and necessary as I am grateful for the hard skills. I would not be able to do the work that I have done and am doing without those lectures! Interestingly, my biggest thank you is knowing how to use Adobe Suite, that has allowed me to jump into video editing projects. Which is interesting, a lot of the work I do, I feel like involves the hard skills that were considered more "minor" in my degree. And I also think I was one of the only people amongst my peers that chose to intern for a stylist and not a brand, so maybe I just chose the wrong degree? I don't know. But I love that I know how to do patterns. So maybe not! So although, yes, it was a fashion degree, I feel like my approach to assignments while I was studying and how I am making use of the hard skills now, is still quite multidisciplinary.

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

What mainly informs your decisions with regards to materials & silhouettes?

CM: Back to the resourcefulness idea, I think I don't always want to limit myself to actual fashion textiles. Part of my accessories in my graduate collection was a huge necklace I made completely out of key rings. In my second and first years, I had used bandages from my first aid kits at home as applique. I felt that it could read as lace and was a usage I wanted to explore. I had also made a completely upcycled jumpsuit in my second year with deadstock cotton twill that was donated to me for the bigger panelsand had then taken all my scraps, my friends scraps, torn them, knotted them into a warn, and knitted into a new fabric. This took me about 7 hours to do, just tearing and knitting. So my fabric is generally informed by what is around me and how I can use it in an interesting wayand because there is such a big focus on fabric and the actual function of my patterns developed as they are modular, I end up exploring simpler, column silhouettes. I want the fabric and the pattern to SCREAM. And for those aspects to be recognised. For me to design a Cinderella ball gown would take away from those details and the components I want people to focus on.

Illustrations by Cebo Mtshemla

According to you–what does it mean to be an 'ethical designer' within today's fashion ecosystem?

CM: To 1) Innovate and 2) Look after the wellness of people. Sustainable fashion, although difficult to define, is definitely layered and a two-fold issue for me. There is a lot of dialogue around sourcing responsiblybut the second half of the issue in our fashion system is unsafe working conditions. There is blood in this industry. So to be an ethical designer is to problem solve, consistently engage and see what solutions can be explored in terms of sustainable sourcing, supporting your local textile industry and minimizing waste. To be a sustainable designer is also to understand effort, to understand the work that goes into producing a textile, producing a garment, and trying your best to track the fairness in compensation in this value chain. It's an askI am aware of thatespecially as a young creative as the reality is, it feels quite challenging to get our hands on beautiful fabric we can trust was ethically produced. But as long as that awareness is there of the importance of prioritizing both the wellness of our natural resources and the people within these value chains, that's a start. As of now, there are fast fashion brands recycling a miniscule amount of fabric, with people working in unsafe conditions that call themselves ethical & release sustainabilityand that's a scary thing to think about.

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla

What are some of the things you are looking forward to in 2024?

CM: Possibly studying againwhich sounds odd considering I just said school was challenging for me! But this is more of a supplementary qualification, it's not focused on fashion design. I will always try my very best to put myself in situations and environments that will make me more well-rounded, so I'm looking forward to that! Building on my community, I am admittedly a bit of a party girl. But partying as a creative really is just networking, and having time now after graduating and before jumping back to school, I would love to focus on building a supportive, creative, eclectic community around myself.

Finally working full-timethat's all I've ever wanted. Bye bye school (for now). And the showcase I have planned for mid-year… conversations are happening, collaborators are on board. I love working with cool people… can't say much more now… Thanks that's all BYE!

Image courtesy of Cebo Mtshemla


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