Design Journey: Rich Mnisi

Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

WORDS Tracy Lynn Chemaly PHOTOS Rich Mnisi and Southern Guild

Rich Mnisi’s eponymous brand has become an icon of South African contemporary culture. The LISOF graduate pushes the boundaries of fashion, and is now taking the same approach to furniture.


Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

Unthinking was my first collection, debuting the year after RICH MNISI was founded. It was a representation of things I grew up seeing in township culture that were minimised or not acknowledged, especially queer identity. It encouraged “unthinking” and accepting reality. I don’t usually speak about the matters that are close to me – I rather do it visually, with triggers that help people see things in a different light.


Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

The RICH MNISI Coke Threds capsule collection was a collaboration with Coca-Cola geared towards a younger generation. As much as my aesthetic is youthful, the silhouettes I go for are quite mature: pleated skirts and tailored jackets. I almost didn’t fit the demographic because I wasn’t designing hoodies and T-shirts… But the collection sold out! It was a beautiful study because it revealed that people like to style themselves, and they like to have an opportunity to mix different aesthetics. It’s fashion; it’s meant to be explored.


Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

When I designed Nwa-Mulamula’s Chaise and Nwa-Mulamula’s Tears for Southern Guild, it was to pay tribute to my great-grandmother Nwa-Mulamula, a woman I never knew but whose story I grew up hearing and wanted to honour. These pieces later went with Southern Guild to Salon Art + Design in New York and PAD London. Furniture design had been a long-term goal for me – but Southern Guild fast-tracked that by 10 years! Because the gallery leans towards unconventional pieces, it has been amazing to go into a world where I shouldn’t make anything conventional. It’s an extension of my fashion brand.

2019: LABOLA

Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

Once I started exploring the idea of Nwa-Mulamula in my designs, she became my artistic muse, guiding me from season to season as I imagined her in different scenarios. My Lobola collection came from me daydreaming about her lobola ceremony, and what it would have been like.


Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

The Ku Hahama collection was inspired by a dream my mother had of a snake, which reminded me of the mythological god Bumba, who created the planet by vomiting stars, animals and humans. My entire family has a massive fear of snakes, so my mother’s dream was filled with terror – but she was also mesmerised by the beauty of the snake. There was a similarity in this to the pain Bumba went through to birth creation. It’s the duality that informed Ku Hahama.

2021: NYOKA

Rich Mnisi: An Icon of South African Contemporary Culture

Nyoka is my first solo show with Southern Guild. The title means “snake” in Xitsonga, and these furniture pieces are an extension of the ideas behind Ku Hahama. I am so proud of this collection, which was created through so much conversation, collaboration, craftsmanship, labour and humility. It’s been a fun and insightful journey to witness my designs transform into perfect pieces of art through the work of sculptors, bead artists, rug weavers, industrial designers, foundry workers and more.


The collection pays homage to my Tsonga roots, focusing on identity and the spirit of cultural pride. The range consists of clashing, brightly coloured pieces featuring abstract patterns and animal prints that nod to my heritage.

Looking for more on local design? Read about Haldane Martin’s design journey over the last 20 years.