Sustainable fashion has been the talk of the town for the past few years and this fashion trend is one that I believe in the most, following the mom jeans fashion trend of course… For context, sustainable fashion can be broken down and explained through many definitions but the simplest and the most standard way to define it is that it has four pillars; Slow fashion which is thrifting, swapping or renting clothes; Ethical fashion which is made from vegan and cruelty-free materials; Conscious fashion which is eco-friendly and green and lastly Circular fashion which is what UNKNWNPROJCTS is ironically known for – upcycling and making recyclable clothing.
UNKNWNPROJCTS is a collective made up of four designers; Sakhile Cebekhulu, Khotso Mahlakoane, Kabelo and the rose among the thorns, Nina. They are essentially a fashion and design collective on an ongoing experimental research project that focuses on exploring designs centred around sustainability and up-cycling, in the context of the South African region. Back in July (2022), I had the opportunity to chat with the collective over a flavourful cup of coffee and this is how it went… Straight from the archives!
We saw a rise of upcycling around the world and a gap that our region had and that’s how we started.– UNKNWNPROJCTS
WORDS BY MUKONDELELI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY XAVIERREBELLION
Okay, let’s start with the name “UNKNWNPROJCTS” how did you come up with it? Or where is it derived from?
Khotso: UNKNWNPROJCTS is a name that I came up with coming to work, it just came up and it fitted perfectly with what we are doing because we do things that we don’t know exactly what the overall direction of it will be, our projects are always unknown.
When did you start working as a duo?
Sakhile: Khotso and I started working together in 2016 as friends but officially in 2018, then. Kabelo started working with us around 2019 and Nina joined us early this year. We are looking for our team to grow but at a slow pace.
How did you get into upcycling fashion?
When Khotso and myself met we had (and still do) our own clothing brands and we had been working in the studio for a while and in the process making waste with the leftover fabrics and that’s when the light bulb moment happened. We saw a rise of upcycling around the world and a gap that our region had and that’s how we started.
It’s also something we have been doing unconsciously because we always have pieces of fabric in the studio that we sometimes use to patch pants with. Upcycling and recycling have been a thing for years, especially in black neighbourhoods but it has been always been overlooked.
What do you love most about the medium?
Sakhile: It has to be the experimental element of it because we usually end up coming up with the most unconventional pieces, but it’s conventional.
Nina: For me it has to be how garments are made. As a designer, I am very interested in the creative and design processes of a piece of clothing and learning from it.
Kabelo: The challenges that come with upcycling, because we never know the outcome of the garments we are creating and how they’ll be received.
Khotso: Working backwards, reconstructing something to create something new.
How would you describe your process?
Our process constantly changes, sometimes we come up with ideas first and sometimes we get materials first and then come up with the ideas. The process is forever changing and it goes back to the name UNKNWNPROJCTS.
What do you hope people take away from your upcycled designs?
How you can give new life to the old. I think we often have so many clothes in our wardrobe and we throw them away or they just sit there for a while. What we have learnt is that you can make that old product into something new.
How has it been working with Nike?
It has been nice, we have a great relationship.
What’s your all-time favourite Nike garment you’ve upcycled?
The Stüssy bag, the green vest, the pieces we made for Ricky Tyler… we have a long list of favourites.
Which piece of clothing is easier to work with?
There’s no piece of clothing that one could say is easy to work with, but maybe jackets because there’s more fabric. to work with.
Which type of fabric is harder to work with?
Stretch fabrics are quite hard to work with, there’s a piece we did for Doowap so definitely stretch fabrics.
Are you guys self-taught designers or you went through fashion school?
That’s the cool thing about our team, Kgotso and Kabelo are self-taught and then Sash and Nina went to fashion school. We have a great balance.
Tell me about your individual brands.
Nina: My brand is called ‘Sunny’ it’s inspired by my family. I always draw inspiration from them and it’s coming out next year.
Sakhile: Mine is called ‘Sash South Africa’ it’s derived from ‘Sash’ which is what everyone calls me by because I am dark-skinned. It is a positive light on black people and tells black and African stories through clothing.
Kabelo: Off Coast, it’s basically about being happy and the name is inspired by skateboarding something that I really loved.
Khotso: Mine is ‘peace by Khotso’ because my name is Khotso, it’s a brand that I started as a way of finding out more about myself.
What would you advise a young aspiring designer that has hopes and dreams of starting their own business?
As a young aspiring designer, the first thing you should do is start, don’t fear anything and don’t tell yourself that you can’t because you don’t have a qualification… just keep going.
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