Walking into Rich Mnisi's studio is like walking into a minefield of distractions. Before we could even make eye contact my gaze fell upon a red puffer jacket with an off-the-shoulder neckline. It looks like the type of thing that Rihanna would pull on with some vetements boots to wear to the grocery store, and I want at least five of them.
"This is going to be worn with a corset," says Mnisi, while cinching in the jacket's waist to show off its future shape. "But you have to see this!"
"This" turns out to be a pale blue cashmere coat with the kind of conceptually folded sleeves that have become one of Mnisi's design trademarks. It's fully lined with orange paisley silk, and by the time he persuades me to try it on I had already mapped out what my entire life would be like if I owned this coat. A successful fashion editor for a French magazine with a name no one can pronounce, but I still eat real bread and am therefore approachable.
This is the thing about Mnisi's designs; they're aspirational, yet accessible. Conceptual and at the forefront of contemporary, yet so beautifully made and considered that they remain completely wearable. The man cares about beauty and about people looking great. I browse through his rails and ask about sleeves -- his experimental approach to this design detail always breathes fresh life into any garment.
"It's not really something that I think about, but to me, it's about the sleeve's relationship with the overall garment that makes it exciting," he says.
Next, he shows me a mustard scuba material that he's about to start cutting up. He excitedly explains the nature of the dress and its construction -- something about a camisole and a bodycon.
"I'm making a whole bodycon, yoh," he says while pinning pieces of pattern paper to the fabric.
Who does Rich Mnisi think is the best-dressed person in the world?
"No, no that's a hard one. I never think of this, wait, there's this Asian girl that I follow on Instagram. Yoh, she can dress. There's no day wear."
As he cuts away, he's also answering call upon call about upcoming collaborations and projects. As the darling of the local fashion industry, everyone wants a slice of what Rich is serving. And who can blame them? I decide to ask about the fashion industry. The local scene is always getting flack, from chaotic fashion weeks to difficulties with production and textiles, so I decide to ask a question that no one seems to be asking these days: what is the SA industry doing right?
"That's such a great question!" Mnisi exclaims while cutting into the scuba. "I think it's the industry's openness. Everyone is so welcoming. Yes, it's hard to get onto a platform, but once you're there everyone has open arms. And everyone helps out, from photographers and make-up artists to stylists and editors."
Ok, time to get to the hardcore journalism and ask the real questions that everyone is afraid to ask: would you rather dress Beyoncé or Rihanna?
"No, you can't ask that!" he exclaims. "Wow ok, you know what, Rihanna always looks great. So I'd like to challenge myself and dress Beyoncé. People don't think that she's a style icon, but she really is. I think a style icon is someone who is influential, and Beyoncé is the benchmark of beauty, globally. If that's not an icon, then I don't know what is."
Favourite people to follow on Instagram? "Naomi Smalls, Miss Thing, Violet Chachki. Drag queens. I've recently become obsessed with 'Ru-Paul's Drag Race.'" So much so that he puts on an episode for us to watch. When asked if he would design for the show I'm met with a thunderous "YES"! What does he love about drag?
"It's my first year watching 'Drag Race'. I think it's another space, it wasn't something I was ever looking at. And now that I'm exposed to it I can't get enough. Those transformations are next-level. It's ahead of fashion, honestly. It's a great source of inspiration."