Inside the rise of South African luxury streetwear brand Refuse Clothing

This interview appears in issue 27 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.

WRITTEN BY LOLWETU PAKATI 

Images: Supplied 

The year 2016 was a significant one for streetwear across the globe.  Just after years of receiving notoriety through the creative output of pioneers such as Virgil Abloh, Samuel Ross, Shawn Stussy, James Jebbia and Nigo, streetwear brands became the most hyped phenomenon of the fashion world.

With the global takeover of ‘casual fashion’ creeping into the forefront, the opportunities for young, black-owned brands grew wider. The almost impossible barriers of entry imposed by age-old traditional fashion institutions appeared to have a gradually diminishing effect on the “outsiders”. For the first time in fashion, designers were taking up space in ways that bypassed the traditional retail channels, subverting the way the fashion industry has long defined and dictated how “cool” is made profitable.

Enter Refuse Clothing, a South African luxury menswear brand founded by Malcolm Mokgope and Minenhle Memela. Established in 2016, which is considered the golden age of streetwear, Refuse Clothing was birthed from the creative expression of two fashion enthusiasts on the outskirts of the creative hub. Hailing from KZN, Malcolm and Minenhle laid the foundation for their eclectic menswear brand with a mission to create functional and intentional pieces that are a reflection of an idealistic world, drawing inspiration from their childhood memories.

Themes of African heritage, socio-economic class dynamics, trashism and modernity collide within their collections, beckoning a new aesthetic of what African luxury fashion can be.

Creating new realities for simple silhouettes, Refuse Clothing’s visual language is famous for upscaling items that people would typically overlook. After having a great year in 2021, where they were selected as winners of SA Fashion Week Scouting Menswear Competition, Refuse Clothing has gone on to establish itself as a trailblazer in the current fashion space.

From dressing hip-hop stars Blxckie and Lucasraps, and Amapiano maverick Musa Keys, to showcasing at the Mozambique Fashion Week and cracking the top 10 finalists for a Daily Paper internship, this year Refuse Clothing is poised to be the biggest breakout luxury brand.

Joined by head stylist Mfundo Memela and art director Lungelo Shezi, HYPE Fashion editor Lolwetu Pakati caught up with the creative minds at the helm of the brand.

Let’s start with your origin story: how was Refuse Clothing established and how has the team evolved to what it is today?

Minenhle Memela: So, how it started was when Malcolm (Refuse Clothing Co-founder) and I met in first year. He already had his own thing going on and I had already started working on my own brand, but I felt that I needed another mind to help evolve it to a new level, and that’s when Malcolm and I started working together. The partnership made a lot of sense because we had a lot of stuff in common. At the time, I was working on a piece for someone and I didn’t have a studio, so one day, after campus, he took my stuff to his house in Pinetown and we just started kicking it from then onwards and started making stuff. He had a bit more experience than me because he had already been at another institution, which I think was Inscape, so he knew a little more about sewing than I did. I’ve always been a creative and he’s always been more of a technical broer. My own brand had to take a back seat because we started growing so much with Refuse. When 2020 came, it felt like we had done all the growing we could achieve together, which led to us involving other collaborators who had a different set of expertise. We wanted to create a team of like-minded people, and we’ve always had a love for clothing, just wanting to look different with a crazy fashion sense.

 

What was that experience like – looking very different to the people around you?

Minenhle Memela: It was very challenging. It was really discouraging too. There was a lot of name-calling and assumptions about us as broers. People were very shallow-minded just based on our appearance.

Mfundo Memela: People would call us so many names and they would even forget about the other slurs. Especially in KZN, it is so hard because a lot of people there are quite closed-minded to fashion and anything that is different.

 

In moments when many people are so critical, I’m sure it becomes very difficult to not conform to their expectations; however, you guys carried on maintaining your own aesthetic irrespective of the backlash. What motivated you to stay true to who you are?

Lungelo Shezi: I think the fact that we’ve been about this but we also have each other as friends to support one another just made it a lot easier. We know that between the four of us, no one is judging each other. We’re going to do whatever we’re trying to do without being bothered by other people’s opinions.

Within the organisational structure of Refuse, what are your various roles?

Minenhle Memela: The whole team is incredibly tapped in creatively, but we all play to our strengths. Lungelo Shezi is very good with words, he handles any copywriting work and artistic direction. Malcolm and I are the designers and creative directors. Mfundo is our in-house head stylist and has a really good eye for detail. Given that Mfundo is self-taught, in order to strengthen his skill set, we normally collaborate with other stylists who have a lot of experience, so that he learns while he’s doing his job.

 

What is the inspiration behind Refuse?

Lungelo Shezi: Well firstly, we are a luxury streetwear brand. When you think of Refuse, we’d like to be considered in the category with the likes of Heron Preston, Off White, Balenciaga…

Minenhle Memela: We are trying to push boundaries, specifically with South African fashion into a global language. We want to be known as more than just a South African brand, we want to have a global reach. The way our aesthetic came about was through thrifting where we would take pieces and deconstruct them. We realised that taking those old clothes, cutting them up and presenting them in a new way was our way of retelling stories from an era we didn’t even exist in. Our whole thing is based on heritage and religion. We try to tell stories for the next generation of kids that weren’t around to witness what was happening in this present time. We want to leave behind a documentation of a piece of history that will live longer than we will.”

What would you say is the visual language of your collections, tying into the description of your aesthetic being defined as “An African aesthetic with modern designs” ?

Minenhle Memela: Basically, it all stems from this: we are a group of gents who have probably lived three different stages of life. We know how life is emakhaya, we know how life is in the townships, and we know how life is in the suburbs. Where we stand, we are representing a kid similar to us who might have been living in the suburbs and every holiday has to go back to the rural farms where his family lives. That experience of being taken out of your comfort zone and put in a completely different place. It just represents being stripped away from everything you know but also acknowledging that every black child in this country has a homeland with a native language and native stories, no matter which social class they are a part of. That’s where our whole aesthetic is born from. It’s an archive of our memories and an understanding of all three lives.

 

It seems that you guys put in a lot of work in growing your brand awareness, be it making it as finalists in the Bubblegum Club x Daily Paper Internship challenge or being the SA Fashion Week Scouting Menswear Competition winners. What is your philosophy in building partnerships with other establishments?

Minenhle Memela: That’s a big channel for us! One thing we always tell people is that before collaborating with anyone, you can’t be on the same platform. If we are embarking on a collaboration with someone, they have to have more experience and resources or have a wider reach. They have to be more established because it has to be a win-win situation. In order for us to grow at the rate we want to, we need to pull in from experience. Whenever we drop, we have to be able to make it hurt all the time. We aren’t trying to skip any steps, but we’ve been in the game for years now, so we’ve seen quite a lot on the ground level and from the streets. Now, we choose collaborations that have a certain level of expertise or company heritage because association always has to be on par.

 

For your future plans and collaborations, what do you have lined up?

Minenhle Memela: We’re trying to do everything – we trying to be a huge fashion house. We trying to touch into furniture, shoes…

Mfundo Memela: Underwear

Minenhle Memela: Yeah, that’s probably going to come out soon. We are trying to do everything and shape a mindset in a subtle manner. We are trying to expand on a global scale. And with that, whoever peeps it, peeps it, but whoever doesn’t like Refuse, then it’s just not for you.

In reference to the vision of Refuse in championing a new outlook on fashion, especially luxury streetwear, what advice would you give to young designers on the come up, someone you might have once been?

Minenhle Memela: Well, if we have to give advice to a younger “us” who has dreams of starting a Refuse, we say don’t be afraid to leave home because there is so much more to explore. Listen to your heart and follow through. Take that bus, and you will see the rest afterwards.

Lungelo Shezi: Don’t be afraid to break stereotypes, and choose the people around you wisely.

This interview appears in issue 27 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.

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