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Front Row with Malaika Cuambe-Jones

Image courtesy of Malaika Cuambe-Jones

Front Row with Malaika Cuambe-Jones

Our first FRM interviewee to usher us into 2024 is a multifaceted fashion creative with beauty & poise almost bursting at the seams. Malaika Cuambe-Jones is a stark example of the impressive future of fashion design in South Africa and its hardworking nature.

Photography by @bby.kilith for @soulchoked

I have continuously professed that at FRM we pride ourselves in promoting the next gen of African creatives inflicting some sort of unique change within the local landscape and our engagement with Malaika is no different. Better accustomed to many as either a: bubbly & expressive fashion student, fledgling fashion designer, professional fashion model and/or everything in-between–Malaika is now a third year Fashion student currently based in Cape Town.

From Malaika's views on jazz being the truest representation of the cycle of life, right down to her ideas of utilizing textiles as a form of archival history, you can tell that she is a completely self-aware designer–a skill which is super unique within today's creative economy. She creates work with purpose and meaning, sourcing soul and inspiration from her personal heritage & unique beliefs, which some may argue is the true essence of creativity. I'm also extremely impressed by Malaika's stance on being a hybrid working student and managing all of the complexities which it ensues.

During our virtual to-and-fro, she adds:

"I would say having a well set up routine and good time management skills is what has helped me the most. However, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and it brings me so much joy."

So enjoy this following interview with Malaika as we delve into their psyche and aim to understand how they balance being a fashion student and working fashion professional, some looming final year & graduate collection thoughts, upcoming 2024 plans, and much more.

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

Malaika: My name is Malaika Cuambe-Jones, I am currently heading into my third year of studying Fashion Design at the Design Academy of Fashion. Other than being a full-time student, I am also a designer as well as a professional model. Most people don’t know this but I also work at a boutique too where I’ve been lucky enough to learn a numerous amount of skills; as well as the ins-and-outs of being a designer while running a business at the same timeby my boss who has been in the industry for over three decades.

So... not only are you a fashion student slash designer but you're also a professional model! I'm very intrigued–how has it been balancing all of these creative pursuits at the ripe age of basically 20?

Malaika: It honestly has not been easy but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Throughout all my sleepless nights, running to and from fittings, to school, to shoots, it's actually been crazy to balancebut somehow I always manage to do it. I would say having a well set up routine and good time management skills is what has helped me the most. However, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and it brings me so much joy. I’m living my dream and the fact that this is only the beginning excites me.

Having just completed your second year as a fashion student–please tell me a bit more about your experience thus far. How has the experience of being in a fashion institution influenced your overall craft?

Malaika: My experience so far studying fashion has honestly been amazing. I’m eternally grateful to be surrounded by such amazing creatives who push me to delve deeper into the corners of my soul. It has helped me to uncover more about myself and what I wish to bring to the industry in the future. I’ve gained even more valuable skills that have been useful in establishing and evolving my craft within the industry so far. The most valuable lesson I’ve taken away from my studies so far is to constantly createas evidence that I am a creative person who is contributing to the creative ecosystem. Once I began creating without letting external factors determine the quality and value of what I birth into the world, life became a whole lot better.

Image courtesy of Malaika Cuambe-Jones

Within your fashion design work–what are you most inspired by when it comes to your design process?

Malaika: Existence. Those from my past, present and future. I consider my design work to be autobiographical in a sense, as I bleed my life into my concepts and process. I view myself as a mosaic or medley of sortsand within this mosaic lies all my points of inspiration. As I make sense of my own history, I am greatly inspired by my dual heritage. Being half-Mozambican and half-South African has given me a plethora of source material to work with as I aim to weave cultural history within contemporary fashion. The idea of utilizing textiles as a form of archival history also influences the intentionality of my design work. ‘Cloth is to the African, what monuments are to Westerners’, is a quote that is constantly running through my mind as I design. Jazz is also a major inspiration of mine; my dads a jazz musician so in every way, I’ve always drawn inspiration from the genre. However, as I delve into exploring the cyclical nature of life within my work, I’ve realized that nothing represents the cycle of life better than jazz. Its diverse influences and improvisation capture the essence of life’s unpredictability, making it a reflection of the ever-changing nature of our existence. That’s really just the beginning of it all.

Photography by @buzzcut.barbie, styled by @styl.i.z.ed

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

Malaika: I aim to be quite intentional with my use of textiles, always trying to create a direct link between my concept and the textiles used. The details always matter and they hold so much symbolism in order to tell the story I wish to conveywhether they’re referencing a specific period, or topic. I play around with silhouettes such as wedding dresses, for example, while dealing with the concept of underage/arranged marriages to symbolize how girls are forced to trade in their childhood for womanhood prematurely. I’ve also been working on incorporating deadstock fabrics in an effort to be more sustainable within my work.

Image courtesy of Malaika Cuambe-Jones

When it comes to your modeling career, what have been some of your biggest hurdles as well as your biggest successes thus far?

Malaika: I think my biggest hurdle was having to overcome being the “diversity” hire in the beginning stages of my career. I’ve also worked on a couple of sets where the hairstylists are not equipped to do my hairresulting in me having to do it myself. I would say my biggest success so far was booking my Refinery job; it was an amazing experience with an amazing team that I’d love to work with again. But also just being able to work with amazing photographers like Tśele (@melanateyourmood) and Julien (@by_ntamakemwa) as well as amazing stylists like the duo Stylized (@styl.i.z.ed) is a success in itself. I’m grateful that I get to be surrounded by such amazing creatives constantly.

Photography by @bby.kilith for @soulchoked

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

Malaika: I’ll speak through the lens of the designer I hope to become in the future. Being a designer on the African continent means that being an ‘ethical designer’ within today’s fashion ecosystem not only involves sourcing sustainable materials, or embracing ethical production processes, but it also means having ethical working conditions. Though being an ethical designer within Africa does face its own challengesthere are many opportunities within the landscape and I think being an ‘ethical designer’ means using those skills and resources without exploiting the works of others. There is so much beauty within collaborating with local communities to encourage not only sustainabilitybut also the legacy of craftsmanship and heritage within Africa.

Image courtesy of Malaika Cuambe-Jones

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

Malaika: I’m mainly looking forward to the launch of my brand, ‘pátria amada’ (translation: beloved motherland) as well as my graduate collection. It’s always amazing to see the fruits of your labour. I’m also looking forward to new ventures and projects, expanding and growing as a creative. I have a really good feeling about the year ahead and this is interview is the perfect start to the year.

Photography by @buzzcut.barbie, styled by @styl.i.z.ed


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