Young, Black and Breaking Fashion: Studio Mapalo

Words by Memuna Konteh
Mapalo Ndhlovu is a 22-year-old LCF graduate, fashion designer and creator of experimental menswear label, Studio Mapalo. We discussed his artistic processes, highs and lows of his young career and the perils of navigating the creative industries, as a newcomer in the midst of a global pandemic.

“I have mixed emotions about being a creative during this pandemic.”

Born in Zambia and raised in North Yorkshire, Mapalo says some of the biggest inspirations for his work come from the outfits parents would put together in his youth: “Growing up, I’d always seen them mix their traditional clothing and designer clothing in the 2000s, I thought it was really cool” he told me.

Their love of bold African prints and slick designer garments made them standout from  other parents in the playground even more than their Black skin, and instilled in their son an affinity for flexing through fashion.  

As he got older he became increasingly frustrated with the lack of options available for style-conscious men.

“I wanted to do menswear because I wanted to make clothes that me and my friends could wear” he told me. “As a consumer, the most frustrating thing about menswear is the monotony of clothing available. Most retailers seem to obsess over trends rather than style… You can walk down the high street and see 50 versions of the same cut of jeans that are on trend but if you wanted something different you’d have to go above and beyond to find it. I’d like to see clothing that’s more representative of different demographics rather than retailers desperate to fit the mould of the man on trend.” he added. 

Kida Kudz wearing a vest from Studio Mapalo’s ‘Project Spectrum’ range for ‘Bounce’ video

Intent on breaking that mould, his designs marry contrasting elements of streetwear and structured utility silhouettes with bold colourways, in homage to some of his favourite designers. “I’ve always looked up to the Prada runways of the late 90s and the D&G shows from around 2003, I loved how futuristic they looked.” he said. 

His work ethic and commitment to concept saw him through some big milestones while working on his degree. His collections have been featured in music videos for Kida Kudz’s ‘Bounce’ and American rapper Bas’, ‘Amnesia’.

While he’s proud of all that he achieved during his time at LCF, he admits that it was far from smooth sailing: “When I first started uni I had the illusion that my classmates and I were all starting from the same point but as time went on I realised that there’s a lot of factors that affect how easy things are for different people. Coming from a working class background, life is made a lot harder because you have to fund your life in this big, expensive city and also find time to do your creative work, which leaves you with a lot less time and resources than people who don’t have to get jobs.” 

Studio Mapalo’s latest project: Pre-collection

Mapalo graduated this summer but the pressures of being a working class creative didn’t end with university. These days he juggles the design and production of his collections, networking to amplify his brand and holding down a day job. “I have mixed emotions about being a creative during this pandemic.” he said.  “On the one hand, I feel as though there’s more time than ever for me to create and there are more platforms online for the work of young creatives like myself to be promoted.

However, on the other hand I feel like a lot of people will be disadvantaged because there’s less access to resources like studio space and although there are more of us trying to get into the industry, we’re all competing for the same opportunities which are dwindling because of COVID. The fashion industry has continued to run but the gap between young designers and the industry seems bigger than ever.” 

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Refusing to let the pandemic stop him in his tracks, he recently released Studio Mapalo’s fifth project. Entitled ‘Pre-Collection’, the range explores a “fusion between traditional workwear and African street style” and draws inspiration from the Herero tribe of Namibia, who incorporated uniforms of their German colonial masters into their traditional robe. Mapalo, who has always considered himself more of an artist than a designer, sees the garments as an “extension of the contrasting factors of culture, history and the need for functionality”. 

It’s important to him that his African heritage and other cultural influences are palpable in his work, especially navigating an industry that remains stifled by lack of diversity. “As inclusive and diverse as the industry tries to be, there are systematic and institutional problems that need to be addressed.

The fashion industry has always championed itself as a freethinking field, that celebrates multiple cultures and class backgrounds but I don’t think this is representative of the people that actually work in the industry. It’s about more than seeing non-white faces in front of the camera, the industry needs to be more transparent about who is making the decisions and where clothing is coming from” he said. 

Mapalo hopes to be a part of this change he wishes to see, with aspirations of having an independent design studio and manufacturing space in London within the next few years. You can follow Mapalo on Instagram or check out his website

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