In a surprising twist, one of the biggest breakout designers during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia was not Russian, but rather South African. His name is Rich Mnisi, and he is one of four designers who participated in MBFW Russia’s special “Africa Explosion” showcase.
Unlike Mnisi’s designer counterparts who showed on the Russian fashion calendar, the South African designer debuted a strong, progressive, gender fluid collection that challenged traditional gender norms. The collection featured both men and women modeling a colorful wave of furry-yellow-collared bomber jackets, bright pink gloves, svelte suits, velvet turtlenecks, lavender trousers, sheer pants, and more. It was difficult to distinguish which items were “men’s wear” or “women’s wear,” but nevertheless the fashion was on point.
He incorporated some of the season’s most covet-worthy accessories, like waist bags and sheer socks, along with colorful, oversized earrings and pins. And in a special tribute to his late great-grandmother, all of the models wore oversized, black floppy hats. For Russia, the collection felt fresh and very unique.
Although gender fluidity on the runway is nothing new, it is noteworthy in the context of the Eastern European fashion scene. In New York, designers like Rio Uribe of Gypsy Sport, Telfar Clemens, and the duo behind Eckhaus Latta have cultivated a stage where gender fluid models and clothing could flourish, but designers like them have not broken the same ground internationally, especially in places like Moscow.
For Mnisi, “It’s always been an unconscious agenda of mine — to normalize certain imagery,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. When the designer first started his career, “a lot of people asked, OK, what’s happening, why are his clothes like that? Who is he dressing for? Does he even know his market?”
Over time, Mnisi’s fashion imagery did become normalized. Today, Mnisi is proud to share that his brand is celebrated in South Africa — not just for “aesthetic” reasons but also for its “intention.”
While it might initially seem like an odd pairing between Mnisi and Fashion Week Russia, it was actually the perfect fit, he says. “I came here mostly for the cultural exchange and what it could do for me and potentially what it could do for them.” In the short time Mnisi was in Moscow, he was asked questions like, “OK, so what does African fashion look like?” In turn, it was important to Mnisi for people to see “what’s happening with African designers” and, on a larger scale, “what’s happening in Africa.”
“South African designers, they’re really cool designers; they have great reviews, and this is also the point because our goal is to show something you’ve never seen,” Alexander Shumsky, president of the Russian Fashion Council, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Our mission now is to establish Moscow as a fashion capital.”
To achieve that, “we need to have a vibrant fashion scene, and this is what I’m responsible for,” Shumsky says. “We create, we push, we develop, we support, we promote, and so on. We give a lot of grants for free shows to designers at Manege [MBFW Russia’s official show venue], and we’ve been doing that since day one.”
In fact, this season, designers from Kazakhstan were invited to share the same catwalk as Mnisi, along with the Russian designers on the calendar. “We used to show Chinese designers, even Indonesian designers. Not a lot, but sometimes it’s the perfect combination, in my opinion,” Shumsky says. “Our main mission is to select the best ones to showcase … not [necessarily] the most known brands.”
Although Mnisi’s fashion line is barely four years old, he’s already debuted at fashion weeks in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Lagos, as well as trade shows in Paris, London, and now Moscow. But he’s hoping to expand his brand’s visibility globally. Does that include the U.S.? Absolutely. He says that he hopes to “step my foot” in the New York fashion scene too.
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