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How One African Designer Brought Beauty To His Country & My Wedding Day

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Photo: Blythe Terrell.
Khulekani Msweli on his homestead in Vuvulane, Swaziland, in August 2014.
Khulekani Msweli had just picked me up from the brick bus stop near his house in rural northeastern Swaziland. I’d been waiting nearly an hour because my cell phone fritzed out and the text announcing my arrival ended up in the ether instead of his inbox. This wasn’t so unusual in this small African country, and we laughed it off. He welcomed me with a warm smile and eyes that glowed behind thick-framed glasses.

The 31-year-old designer and entrepreneur looked coolly hip, as always, in a white shirt with a red print under a blue sweater with patches in an argyle-type pattern at the top, jeans rolled tightly above the ankle, and brown wingtips. I was a scrubby Peace Corps volunteer wearing a line you could call "Sun-Bleached by Old Navy."

We bumped down the muddy road in his silver-gray station wagon, heading for the homestead he shares with his parents. This area is called Vuvulane, and the land around it vibrates with brilliant green sugar cane. He waved to neighbors, and we pulled through his parents’ gate and parked near the high cinder-block fence. There were fruit trees and chicken coops — a mainstay on many homesteads — but the two brick houses with corrugated-metal roofs were better made, with finer decorative flourishes. Khulekani’s is the house of an artist: open and swelling with light, its stark white walls accentuating sketches, paintings, and sculpture.

I was bringing a piece of the country I had come to call home with me to one of the biggest days of my life.

He had just returned from the United States and offered coffee and “cookies” — instead of the British “biscuits” — pronouncing the first syllable like the sound a dove makes. We sipped coffee at his large wooden table. The last time I had been here, I was feathering purple fabrics between my fingers and examining a sketch of an elegant imaginary woman in a soon-to-be-real gown.

This meeting with Khulekani happened in August 2014. By that point, I’d been a client of his for a year or so. I’d gotten engaged a week before leaving the U.S. for the Peace Corps, and my fiancé (who was also working in Swaziland) and I were planning our wedding from afar. A friend had seen Khulekani’s work at an art-gallery shop and approached him about designing and making her wedding dress. This would solve two problems for me — the desire for a nontraditional dress and the absence of David’s Bridals in Swaziland — and I followed suit.

But this time, Khulekani and I were sitting down to talk about his work beyond the showroom — building a better future in his native Swaziland.
Swaziland, a country slightly larger in area than Connecticut, is home to nearly 1.3 million people. It also has the highest HIV prevalence in the world and is the last absolute monarchy in Africa, ruled by King Mswati III. The World Bank categorizes Swaziland as a lower-middle-income country, but 63 percent of its people live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is at least 29 percent (depending on how you calculate it).

It’s also a country where the fine arts aren’t necessarily well-understood. There are strong cultural traditions of song, dance, and craft, but children don’t learn about the arts in school. Khulekani himself, who displayed artistic talent from a young age, honed his own craft not in Swaziland’s crowded state-run schools but at private academies. When he did attend a public high school, he said his only opportunity for artistic outlet came during woodworking and other technical courses.

That experience has made Khulekani a fierce advocate for promoting the arts in Swaziland. He believes that the fine arts are important to a country’s development, both in terms of teaching people to think critically and in terms of providing jobs.
“We cannot claim to be developed if we are not a nation based within the arts,” he told me.

The dearth of formal training opportunities means that many emerging young artists are self-taught, he said, leading to work of varied quality. The training deficit affects his growing business, too — Khulekani said he struggles to find highly skilled tailors and seamstresses to execute his complex designs.

I got lucky: For the sewing of my wedding dress, Khulekani enlisted a “star” and his “right-hand man,” the stoic and deft Mr. Mathomsi. After the sketching and design phase, I went on to fittings at the tailor’s tight space on a busy corner above the post office in Manzini, Swaziland’s financial capital. The dress itself was one shoulder in two layers of purple, light over dark, with a silver clasp (made by a local silversmith) adjoining the front and the back.

It was fitted at the top and flowy on the bottom — to use what I’m sure are technical design terms — allowing for some truly epic dance-floor spins. I added a silver belt to complete the look in Khulekani’s sketch. The May before I left Swaziland, I took it home by indelicately jamming the garment bag into overhead bins from Johannesburg to London to Toronto to St. Louis. I was bringing a piece of the country I had come to call home with me to one of the biggest days of my life.
It was fitting that Khulekani was the person I chose to bring my nontraditional spin on the wedding dress to life. One of his signatures is modernizing traditional clothing in Swaziland, transforming staples like animal-skin loincloths with bright dyes and pops of color. He said he loves spicing up mainstays like the loincloths, called emajobo, and “making them relevant” to a broader audience.

“[I said,] how can I wear it on a day-to-day event, give it some color, give it some flair, mix it up, jazz it up, you know — combine it with a formal jacket, combine it with this and make it modern,” Khulekani told me. “And the moment I did that — good Lord — even when I was in America people said, 'That’s a very chic, dapper style. It’s different yet, wow, we’d like to wear that.’ And that was exposing the Swazi tradition to an international market.”

That approach has caught the eye of some high-profile clients, including former U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland Makila James.

“I thought, ‘How fantastic, he is linking very traditional small Swaziland to very big global fashion,’ and he certainly tapped into what is a very big thing right now: African haute couture,” James said.
His work has gained attention outside Swaziland, too. In 2014, Khulekani spent six weeks at the Obama administration’s inaugural Young African Leaders Initiative. He participated as part of the business and entrepreneurship track and received training at Dartmouth College, alongside entrepreneurs working on projects that include designing apps, teaching girls to code, and filtering gray water into drinking water. He was also named one of Africa’s most inspiring young people in 2014.

But even as his profile grows globally, Khulekani is committed to keeping his business rooted in his homeland.

Khulekani attended university in the United Kingdom, studying design, art, and then fashion design with technology, and interned for British designer Marios Schwab. But the robust fashion world of Western Europe didn’t entice Khulekani to stay abroad. His choice runs counter to a common narrative, that of the “brain drain” of African students who study abroad and decide to make a go of it in a country where they can access a better quality of life and, in the case of art, better markets.

"I made a conscious decision from the early go that I had to return to Swaziland," he said.

Khulekani has experimented, opening several shops around the country, but his current workspace and showroom are near home, in Vuvulane. His clothing-design contracts have included the somewhat mundane (school uniforms) and the more exciting (concept pieces for the ambassador).

For most of his work, which includes eclectic housewares and interior design, he does the design and then commissions the tailoring or construction. This is done partly in the interest of time, but mainly because Khulekani sees it as his responsibility to provide jobs through his art. That approach has won him major kudos.

“He could be in Johannesburg, he could be in Pretoria, he could be in London….But he chooses, he consciously chooses, to bring his talents to Swaziland,” James told me in 2014. “He is the kind of young African talent who has decided that his fortune, his fame, his future, his inspiration is in his country of his birth.”

Khulekani said he hopes to inspire other local young people to pursue their passions in the arts — and show the world that design isn’t just for a small subset of people.
“All the design companies are white-owned, the most successful ones,” he said. “So that creates this perception that design or the arts are a white thing. And I always say, ‘No, no, no, it’s not.’ Africa has been the bedrock of creativity from years gone by.…For me, it’s trying to break that stereotype and say, no, you can be Black, you can be young, you can do this thing. It’s for all of us.”

Still, there’s a ways to go before some Swazis will be interested in buying a contemporary piece of art.

Aleta Armstrong, a friend of Khulekani’s and a fellow artist, has also experienced the challenges of building a market for art within the country. Armstrong and her husband own a gallery near a shopping mall in Swaziland’s wealthy Ezulwini Valley area, a prime spot for tourism traffic.

But art can’t thrive on tourist money alone, and Armstrong wants to appeal to locals as well. When we spoke last year, she said that 95 percent of the gallery’s sales are to people who don’t live in the country.

“I think in Swaziland, what is contemporary is not understood,” Armstrong said.

In the year-plus since the day Khulekani and I sat over cookies and coffee, he has continued to draw clients in fashion, sculpture, and interior design, many arriving via word of mouth. He has taken his creative mind to Swaziland’s Alliance Française and a new sugar-cane museum, and he designed an installation/sculpture for the new American Embassy.

Khulekani seems tireless, and his energy is infectious. His hope is that Swaziland continues to grow in the arts, building a rich environment that creates “more Khulekanis.”

“I wish to live in a country one day whereby any child can really dream, and that dream they have can actually be attained through a system which encourages, shields, harnesses, and allows one to be expressive, allows one to be different, allows one to make, create without any hindrance, without any interference,” he said. “Because it’s only then we can truly see great innovations, see great minds coming to the fore.”
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