The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.
Maria is a designer based in Johannesburg. The creator of fashion label Maria McCloy Accessories, she infuses African-inspired prints to create shoes, clutches and accessories. She has worked as a publicist for Viacom Africa, dealing with media outlets like BET and MTV. As a journalist, she has written for The Sunday Times, Guardian, The Star and others. Maria was a co-founder of South African media company Black Rage Productions, the first platform of its kind publishing content related to urban culture in the country.
Why did you decide to launch the fashion collection, Maria McCloy Accessories?
I always had an inclination towards accessories. When I got my first watch at age ten from my father, I had a whole arm of Indian bangles that I had to take off. My mother said told me that, when I was a small child living in Nigeria all I liked was the market. That’s who I’ve always been. So when I was at home in Lesotho a few years ago, I met a guy who was making earrings, and I told him to make them bigger for me. He said my ears were going to fall off. I said they wouldn’t and I brought these big earrings back to Joburg, gave them to my friends and everyone started wanting them.
I had a media company at the time, Black Rage Productions and I started giving my accessories to people who would wear them when they went on TV. One person who wore them all the time before and after she became really famous is Lira, the singer. And then I showed them to Nkhensani, the head of Stoned Cherrie, who gave me my first order. That was big for me and my earrings, because at that time Stoned Cherrie was the most important Afrocentric store. Then I showed the earrings to my friend Marianne Fassler, the great South African fashion designer, who used them in one of her shows and next thing you know I was in TrueLove, the influential South African women’s magazine. So that’s how it started, in a totally organic way, where I was able to tie my passion for fashion into my world of media and music.
We can change that mentality where people feel that they should wear traditional African clothes for weddings and Western attire when they want to be sexy.
Then, in 2008, I started selling at a flea market in Newtown, the Joburg suburb because I also loved vintage fashion. I also then became known for my vintage clothes. So when my media company closed in 2009 (after having been in business since 1996) I became a freelance writer and it became very difficult to make a living. So I started to focus on my collection, with vintage clothes, new bags, clutches, Market Lady bags, Ghana Must Go bags. In 2011, Market on Main opened as a new development in downtown Joburg and I now had a proper base, a place where I could sell every Sunday.
In 2012, I started going to cheap, teeny bop shops like Jet and Mr Price in Joburg to buy shoes that I would cover with cloth. That led to many magazine features, a TEDx talk and this year I started making shoes in a proper factory run by an old Italian guy in downtown Joburg. I also met a Tanzanian guy who is making my necklaces. My bags are made by a Nigerian guy and I have to say I love that aspect of image activism, with Zulu cut-outs and so on, where we can change that mentality where people feel that they should wear traditional African clothes for weddings and Western attire when they want to be sexy.
How has the fashion scene changed in Johannesburg over the past decade?
What scares me about the fashion scene, is that some of the great labels that I used to cover as a journalist, that I used to make TV shows about, do not exist anymore. Stoned Cherrie and Sun Goddess are still around, but not in the same way. At the time, they were powerful, creative, new, urban South African brands reflecting what was happening on the streets and putting it on to a Fashion Week platform.
The question is, where do we go to buy the clothes after they’ve been shown on the runway?
Those brands would be so needed now. You have your legends who are still around, like Black Coffee and Marianne Fassler and Clive Rundle. And you also have Amanda Laird Cherry, who is now based in the US with her husband, even though her production is still here.
There just aren’t enough retail outlets. If you go to Sandton right now, you will see that David Tlale might be the sole boutique stocking local South African designs and his stuff is super lux. Thula Sindi just opened his high-end shop in Rosebank, even though he launched his business back in 2005. There are so many Fashion Week shows and we can go to see the clothes, but the question is, where do we go to buy the clothes after they’ve been shown on the runway?
Retail is still not very strong in those areas, I guess it’s because it’s very hard to compete with China.
Menswear is growing, with bespoke collections like Naked Ape and streetwear labels like Punk & Ivy and Butan Wear are doing well. Braamfontein and Maboneng are the Joburg neighbourhoods where up-and-coming designers are supposed to be opening the cool shops, but actually they’re more for hanging out and drinking. Retail is still not very strong in those areas; I guess it’s because it’s very hard to compete with China.
Who is your African of the year?
The whole of Africa inspires me every single day, and there are so many people that I look up to, but the youth behind the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements inspire me so much: they are showing that leaders must watch out and listen to their people.
Follow Maria on Twitter @MariaPodesta
Check out Maria’s accessories here
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