In between preparing for her upcoming collection, servicing her clients, trying to find the perfect spot for our virtual interview, and her chuckling at whether her hair looked decent while trying to tuck it away – it was absolutely incredible to tap into her wealth of wisdom and her rich knowledge of how history ties into what influences what we wear.
Hangwani Nengovhela personifies her brand, Rubicon by bringing subtle African-opulence to each collection. For over two-decades, she has contributed her knowledge and skills at some of South Africa’s Fashion and Textile industry Giants.
As a celebrated award-winning designer, Hangwani has a qualification in Textile and Clothing Techniques from the Minjiang University, China. She has dressed South African woman power houses and continues to put her best foot forward across the world’s runways.
Q. Rubicon has cemented itself as a gamechanger in the fashion industry but let’s rewind to your early days growing up in Sibasa, Venda. What are some of your memories?
I was a tom boy of note. I used to climb trees, ride BMX bikes and attempt all sorts of tricks. I even started driving at the early age of 14, because I was influenced by the boys around me.
Growing up, my mother was an educator and is still in the public service. She also has the same business in fashion, like what I’m doing with Rubicon.
She kept me very busy. I remember helping her and that’s how I learnt to operate a sewing machine. I’d put pieces together at a very young age. She would purchase a lot of fashion magazines and I would page through all of them to get some inspiration.
Although I grew up in that environment, I didn’t wake up and decide, “I’m going to be a designer”. I started off in marketing and leaned towards fashion.
Q. Clocking in almost two decades in the industry, what’s your secret to sustaining the relationships and staying in business this long?
The value chain and having the right systems in place is secret. If there’s no system, there’s really no plan. It’s like a business footprint, you follow the footprint and implement the plan, be it in relationships, marketing, manufacturers, etc.
I also value having a solid team. I try not to wear many caps. When it comes to our relationships with customers, the aim is to overdeliver. People perceive designers to over promise and underdeliver, so we ensure that never happens. We have a client liaison department that manages schedules and appointments to keep everything on track.
Marketing starts with the inception and conception of the design process, be it where the seamstresses are or cutters are, because if anything goes wrong there and you produce a mediocre garment, customers won’t be satisfied.
Consistency and quality are important, we’ve managed to cater for the same market and attract new customers. On a day to day, I’m consulting with clients, I’m dealing with fabric people, and around last year we started creating our own prints. So yeah, everything is hectic, but the results are good.
Q. What is your creative process? You also mentioned you are now at the level where you are creating your own prints, what informed that decision and how does it tie to how you creatively work towards achieving the final product?
I’ve gone back to my roots with my latest designs. I decided to pay tribute to my mother. We renamed the Collection to 10.20.20 (October 2020), instead of “Spring Summer” or “Autumn Winter”. I revisited all her vintage outfits and one of the things that I came across was a print dress that I used to see her in quite often, so I redesigned that print myself.
The inspiration comes from there. The “Myth Of Origin” Collection, (one of the designs with the writing across her shirt), is inspired by my paternal side and is from a report my father who was an Anthropologist, wrote on Mapungubwe. After he wrote that report between 2008-2010, he was awarded a “National Orders Award” by former President, Thabo Mbeki, and Mapungubwe was declared a World Heritage site.
My maternal side of the family are also descendants of Mapungubwe, so I try to think about the rich history, different influences and eras that happened there, and I can say that’s what I try to think about for inspiration during my creative process. I try to go back as much as possible to take that all in.
Q. Prior to Covid, was there ever a time where you were going through a difficult phase that convinced you that this was never going to work out?
To be really honest, with Covid, I felt like God’s hand was over us as a business. Nothing changed. We did not have to let go of our staff members. Instead, I was able to increase their pay where I could. Our clients were still supporting us.
Through our process of venturing into property, there was a point where we trusted the wrong people to execute a task, I thought they were just as passionate and that almost bruised the brand. I’m generally a trusting person and I’m passionate about giving back. The deal went left but we haven’t given up. Rubicon is indeed venturing into property.
I’m the type of person who likes to process things first and not rush. I prefer getting in-depth knowledge on how to tackle the issue and then pursue it. So, we are positive about this move, and we’ll be telling good stories about it in the future.
Q. What are your rules of engagement when it comes to your team?
I always say, I don’t care if you have the best skills and experience, but if your attitude isn’t right, we simply can’t work together. My team knows that, and we give each other the respect we deserve.
Like I said, I try not to wear all the hats in the business. As a creative, I can’t be dealing with HR matters or clients that are complaining, that would deter my creative process. Especially now as I’m working on our Autumn/Winter 2022 collection, which will showcase at SA Fashion Week, first week of November.
I am quite sensitive to energy. I can sense when one of my team members is not okay. I consider myself a healer more than anything, be it in the office or even with my clients. I can pick up on emotions and feelings. With some clients, I’ve noticed that it’s more about the sessions and conversations we have that they appreciate the most, more than the actual clothing they come to pick up.
I’ve come to understand that when a woman comes to Rubicon, they want to be transformed, and I think I have a natural healing spirit that will make you feel better about yourself.
Even on a personal level, I make sure my family is mentally healthy, I’ve made sure that my children talk to someone, and have made it part of their lifestyle to talk to their therapist.
Q. Fast fashion came to the spotlight recently, when certain celebrities were slammed for working with a popular fast fashion brand, flagging problematic and ethical issues that accompany this. For people who are just happy to see a good price on an item – how can you enlighten them about the true cost of fast fashion?
Fast fashion is bad for the environment, period! Think about what happens to all that clothing. Where does it go if not utilised? How is the material disposed? The clothing gets thrown away or burnt and that damages the environment. This also manifests in climate changes. I recall how last year’s Spring Day was extremely cold. Everything has a ripple effect. Designers have a responsibility to look after what they are producing.
I prefer clothing that is sustainable and durable. I was also involved in a sustainable fashion project recently with “Zebra Square”, showcasing at the Diamond Walk. So it’s close to my heart and I’m a big advocate for that movement.
Q. Running a fashion empire can be taxing. How did you handle the work pressure and being a fully present mom?
Finding the balance was not easy. When my children were younger, I would take them everywhere I go. I have a 22-year-old daughter and I remember how I would prioritise taking her to her ballet and swimming classes and waiting there for 40 mins. I wanted to make sure I never miss the important stages of my children’s lives. Even when my daughter wanted to attend a party, I was that mom in the parking lot. Being a mother and trying to run a successful business is difficult, but I did it.
Meditation also helped me a lot, because at one point I felt like I was just overworking myself for others and other people’s salaries, and would ask myself, what about me? Funny enough, it was my daughter that assisted me in my journey to self-love and meditation.
Q. Many budding designers have a common challenge – funding. Was that ever a struggle for you? What’s your advice to upcoming designers?
When I started, banks didn’t want to fund this business, so I had to use my own resources to build my empire. Now Rubicon is self-sustainable, I don’t have to look for external resources to run it or pay bills. I recall the early days when my mother and late dad assisted me with some bills, I really had a great family support structure.
There are government business funding organisations for startups such as SEDA. I would advise that young designers stay informed and do their research constantly to look out for funding opportunities. However, don’t wait for someone to fund you, start with what you have and build from there.
Q. What album or song is in rotation in your car right now?
I’ve been trying to reconnect with my dad because I miss him so much, so I play the songs that he would play back in the days when I was growing up.
Rubicon has surely made strides in the fashion economy, not only cementing that a woman belongs in the fashion and textile industry, but illustrating the importance of building an empire as a woman.
We love how deeply spiritual Hangwani is, as well as how she has managed to lead from a very deeply and softly feminine place. We know this business will soar and rise!