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From childhood play to spotlight as young designer launches collection in Pick n Pay clothing stores

| On the move

Design and fashion have been Cinani Nhlapo’s life since he was a youngster playing house, dressing up with his cousins and sewing his clothes by hand.

Now the 32-year-old from Brits in the North West Province, who managed to duck out of being sent to the army in favour of studying fashion design and technology at Tshwane University of Technology, has made his dreams come to life thanks to a collaboration with Pick n Pay Clothing’s Futurewear programme. His five-piece range, Cinani Nhlapo x Kiav x Pick n Pay Clothing, debuts at over 40 Pick n Pay Clothing stores and online on 20 September 2023.

“In the village, they didn’t understand a boy wanting to make clothes, but my mom supported me. When I started coming home with my sketch pad during university holidays, the family could see what I was doing and that fashion could be a career,” Nhlapo said.

After his studies, Nhlapo gained experience in the retail industry doing visual merchandising and styling in Pretoria. “After a few years, I realised I was seeking a more creative space and a fresh start, and moved to Johannesburg, determined to create.”

Nhlapo’s story is peppered with mentions of mentorships and shadowing other designers, and he credits media personality Dineo Ranaka for giving him his first break, working for her label LuvDR. “Dineo allowed me the creative freedom to design,” he said. He also did wardrobe styling for various TV shows and celebrities, which led to him launching his label in 2016, CN Clothing.

“I felt I had absorbed everything until then and had equipped myself with the experience to venture out on my own, so I put on my big boy boots and threw myself into designing a woman’s lounge range, which was androgynous enough to accommodate LGBTQ.”

Four years later, the pandemic struck Nhlapo’s business hard, and he had to rely on freelance work as designing for awards ceremonies and other events dried up. “I went back to the drawing board and realised there could still be a place for me in the retail sector.”

Nhlapo relocated to Cape Town last year, understanding that the city was the base for most of the country’s retail clothing head offices. It was then that Nhlapo came across Pick n Pay’s Futurewear programme, which aims to cultivate the new guard of South African creatives by affording them the opportunity to launch their businesses with an exclusive collection at the leading value clothing retailer.

The initiative between Pick n Pay Clothing and Atelier Gavin Rajah provides membership and practical experience to up-and-coming designers and entrepreneurs to grow their businesses.

Nhlapo was accepted as one of three designers in the 2023/24 Futurewear programme and waxes lyrical about all he learnt from Rajah and the team at Pick n Pay Clothing, led by General Manager Hazel Pillay. He was also mentored by Julia Buchanan, the first designer to launch a collaboration with the programme and who later launched a second range with the retailer.

"My journey within the programme, from being its first emerging designer to now mentoring Cinani, has given me an in-depth understanding of how this initiative serves as a powerful catalyst for young designers, offering them a pivotal launching pad for their careers," says Buchanan speaking at the launch event. Her brand, JULIA, has grown in many ways since the launch of her first range with Pick n Pay, and has been featured at the Cape Town Resort Collections each year.

“Fashion is so diverse, and what I thought I knew was different when you are designing for a big outlet – totally different from designing for one client. Everything is so particular, and I would love to do it again if an opportunity arises and would encourage any young creative to grab the opportunity if it arises,” Nhlapo said.

Nhlapo’s range collaborates with fellow 2023/24 Pick n Pay Futurewear graphic designer Kiav Mitoo (20), who designed the prints for the crop top, jumpsuit and oversized shirt dress. The range also includes a wrap dress and shorts.

“I was raised by aunts and grandmothers in a family dominated by women, so my inspiration was the women in my life: resilient African women who are strong and have broken free from societal norms. I wanted the range to pay homage to the matriarchs in my family and South African women as a whole.” Nhlapo describes his designs as minimalistic, with clean lines and straightforward patterns. The five items are all in hues of blue, a colour he donned at the launch to continue “the conversation” of his brand.

“I am in complete disbelief that people will be wearing my clothes all over South Africa, and I am excited and truly grateful to Pick n Pay for the opportunity. It is surreal; I thought I might faint at the launch.”

Back at the drawing board after a busy past few months, Nhlapo said he felt like the sky was the limit. “I want to grow the Cinani Nhlapo brand, do more Fashion Weeks and collaborate with other creatives and artists.”

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