They were more than just a brand. They were synonymous with youth culture, kwaito and hip-hop and then they disappeared. So what went wrong… and are they back?
The story of ‘firsts’ can either be an iconic moment or serve as an unforgettable lesson about ‘what not to do’. There’s a gift and a curse that comes with being a pioneer – building something incomparable for the culture, being a movement, creating a sense of community that people did not know they needed, reaching unimaginable success, inspiring possibility and then… fade to black. Loxion Kulca, the 21-year-old streetwear brand that was rooted in the identity of the post-democratic youth, did all the above, till it came to a screeching halt. Careers Magazine explores what happened to the brand that shaped SA pop culture and created incredible iconic moments in our black entertainment space.
Loxion Kulca was founded by Wandi Nzimande, Sechaba Mogale and Brian Abrahams on the philosophy of expression, which was a big deal in the ‘90s and early 2000s, where South Africans were working towards overcoming a history of marginalisation and silencing. “I’m of the kwaito generation. I am hip-hop, where the knowledge of self was a big thing. Not knowing who you are or where you come from, was in a way, a disability,” Nzimande says.
Being a staunch hip-hop fan and listening to some of the culture’s greats such as N.W.A, Biggie and Jay-Z, and hearing their pride in who they were and where they came from, Nzimande says, “I started seeing how we weren’t proud of who we were. ’ Clearly our history had eroded that I saw there was a gap – we needed a sense of belonging.”
Nzimande says even though his family was exiled from the township and forced to move to the suburbs, there was something about the township that held a certain promise to him. He says Loxion Kulca wasn’t just a brand he created, he had a philosophy that he strongly felt he needed to express because, “I missed the township. I missed the location”.
Much like how you find yourself being a consumer of a certain industry, to subconsciously being its student and ultimately consciously contributing to the industry and its evolution, Nzimande says his and Sechaba’s story is no different. Together they studied the science behind some of the biggest brands, the tools they used and how they grew and influenced pop culture. How, for example, in some publications small and upcoming brands were placed at the back of the magazine and gradually made their way to covers, and how some designers dressed lesser-known rappers to grow their profile.
However, the implementation of what they learnt was far more challenging. In fact, when they started, Nzimande says they were doubted a lot, “We were young black guys making a fashion label: people laughed at us. It was really embarrassing. It was shameful. To a point where at some stage we thought we were idiots for wanting to do this. It was one of the hardest things to do.” Even their mentor, Brian Abrahams, wasn’t convinced. “He thought that green was a horrible colour and him being Jewish, lokshen meant noodles in his language. He thought it was the dumbest thing he had ever seen in his life,” Nzimande explains. This – in addition to the brand speaking about the township – is what contributed to them wanting to do it even more: “The fact that it was uncool made it cool.”
When Loxion Kulca finally took off, it was as if it had always been part of the South African youth culture. It was predominantly known for dressing kwaito artists, but Nzimande says hip-hop artists (Amu, Mizchif, Skwatta Kamp, HHP, Prokid) did it first. The first performing artist they dressed was comedian David Kau. Nzimande says they bumped into Kau in Makhanda (then-Grahamstown) in 1999 and he made them so popular that everywhere he went, people wondered who he was until he was affiliated with Phat Joe who also started rocking the brand on his show, The Phat Joe Show. “By the time we were working with YFM, through Sbu The General, it got really hectic,” Nzimande says. Their brand alignment was rooted in the black identity, which is what the personalities they aligned themselves with spoke to; this played a role in the brand appealling to the collective imagination of the South African youth — so much so that Loxion Kulca was even able to compete with long-standing international brands like Converse at the time.
The fact that it was uncool made it coolNZIMANDE ON LOXION KULCA
“The one artist I started working intimately with was HHP. Jabba’s album O Mang? was designed by us and that cover became a Jabba t-shirt and that t-shirt, as you know, became his brand,” Nzimande says. After that collaboration, Loxion Kulca worked with the late ProKid, in 2007, on a shoe called Pro Ink.
The shoe was created around the same time ProKid was working on his album, but he had a fallout with his previous label. Nzimande called his good friend, DJ Sbu, who owned the recording label TS Records. Nzimande had already been working with TS Records dressing Mzekezeke, Brown Dash and Mapaputsi. He says TS Records was like their home, so it was easy to take Pro there. “As we created the shoe, he was making the album and we needed a tagline for the shoe and Pro said, ‘Pro Ink, Dankie San. That’s what I want to call the album to show my appreciation for the love that I have for the people and my appreciation.’ I hope I quote him right on this,” Nzimande says narrates Pro’s words, continuing, “‘Because ngi’blind nge ball pen. I just want to say ‘dankie san’ to everyone that has shown me love by buying all my albums and those who have come to all my shows,’ and then he signed it, which became a signature.’
“So, what people don’t know is Loxion Kulca gave birth to a lot of movements and brands. There are other brands I’d like to mention but I’m not going to do that because I respect my brothers and their movements.
It wasn’t about taking claim of their success, it was about what we call a candle being lit by another,” he says.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, the successes that were being celebrated by the nation were overcome by a lull and then a deafening silence.
Apart from the fashion industry being cutthroat with a short shelf life and the novelty factor wearing off, Nzimande says the biggest challenge was mass production of counterfeit goods. Although pretty common in the fashion industry, Nzimande says from a business perspective this was their hardest knock. “There was 60%-70% of [fake] Loxion Kulca on the market. Now people cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t anymore. All of a sudden, there are designs that are not ours and we are losing our unique selling point,” he says.
This also led to their retailers questioning their authenticity as well as their pricing because there was someone else selling their product at a quarter of the price. Nzimande says that’s when he decided to take matters into his own hands by [technically] becoming a law enforcer: for more than two years, he hunted down those who were putting him out of business and confiscating the counterfeits. “It’s a horrible form of flattery. At first it was so cool when it happened. I used to laugh but woah, I didn’t realise that we would become victims of our own success.
“I was fighting for the survival of the brand and I was fighting a losing war. I realised, it was part of the journey. If you’re a brand and you’re popular, that’s what happens to you.” This endeavour, Nzimande says, cost him millions.
Being young and uninformed also played a role which, he agrees, contributed to them neglecting some things, such as a shareholders’ agreement. So, when their mentor, who was also their partner and someone who was a father figure in their lives, died in 2003, they encountered some issues. “He kept on telling us that we needed to sign a shareholders’ agreement in case something happened to him. We were so clueless. So, unfortunately after he died it took a while for us to sort that out with his family,” Nzimande says. As the adage goes, “when it rains, it pours,” and he says it felt exactly like that — all the challenges happened at the same time and it put a strain on his partnership with Mogale, who eventually broke out of the partnership, though for his own reasons. Speaking on the separation, Mogale says: “I left in 2007 [because] at the time there was a dispute.”
Overcoming all these challenges meant starting from scratch for Nzimande. “I’m the last man standing. I have to reinvent myself. I’m now DJ 1D, expressing myself through music, and I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, which is television. I’m working with a young filmmaker and we started a creative agency. Jahmil X.T Qubeka was my saviour because in our partnership I helped him become a director and he helped me reimagine Loxion Kulca.” Mogale’s cousin, Themba Mogale, is one of the people who have stood by Nzimande’s side since the inception of the brand all the way through to its current reinvention. Themba works in the brand’s marketing division as well as closely with Nzimande in executing Loxion Kulca’s vision. He says things are different from how they did them back in the day because, “back then we had a lot of impact without social media and television was our only screen before the internet”.
As far as lessons go, Nzimande says these have been documented in great detail in the brand’s four-part documentary, 20 Years of Loxion Kulca which aired on SABC 1 last year. But he says the lessons are: “One, you are enough. Two, your desire to succeed should be greater than your fear of failure because the fear will always be there. The third lesson is one that a lot of a people are asking, one that I struggled with and still struggle with, ‘what went wrong?’ But there is no day so bright that night will never come and there is no night that so dark that day will never come. And that is why Loxion Kulca is 21 years old today. You have to win like you’re used to it and lose like you love it — you embrace that loss; you take that L. The last lesson is, success is not a destination, it’s a journey. Be in it and do what you say you are going to do.”
Although the documentary also helped to boost their reach, Themba says this time around, they’re planning on being more accessible. This time around, Nzimande adds, the brand is more about the people. “In most of our videos we actually used to dress artists in stuff that didn’t go in the stores”, and people would often ask for those specific items. This time around, Themba says they’ve learnt the importance of catering to their community equally. “It’s also about being at the right retail stores and making sure that our customers can get our product because as much as there is so much advertising, the key here is accessibility of the product,” Themba says.
To celebrate their 20th anniversary last year, Loxion Kulca showed at South African Fashion Week and Nzimande says this was so that they could be seen as what they’ve always been and be judged at the very same status of being a fashion brand while also creating opportunities for other young creatives.
“When I met Brian and he started mentoring me about the fashion industry and I told him about our idea, and without his knowledge, direction and network we wouldn’t have achieved all we have. We knew how important what he did was which is why we established a monthly fashion competition in 2003 called ‘Loxion Fashion Passion’,” Nzimande explains.
“When we wanted showcase at fashion week, we were told we’re not couture enough and we just weren’t good enough. So, imagine a young designer?” Loxion Kulca did eventually showcase at the SA Fashion Week for more than 10 years before their hiatus, which came when Nzimande’s mother fell ill and later passed away in 2013.
Loxion Kulca is back and Nzimande says while there have been some exciting moments in their history, things are going to be slightly different while remaining true to their philosophy of expression. Although you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s about respecting how things are done currently, especially with social media. Themba acknowledges that Loxion Kulca is not as young as it used to be and that there are younger brands in the market, he adds that they intend on using the latest tools to advance their reach; especially considering the ease of access to their products.
However, Nzimande says he also believes there is plenty that younger brands can learn from their story, especially some basics which he has learnt have stood the test of time. “What’s your unique selling proposition? You have to bloom where you’re planted; what’s your purpose? Who is your community? It also has to really be organic,” he says.
With all the international travel and experiences he’s had from rubbing shoulders with the greatest names in hip-hop – such as Russell Simmons, Puffy, Mos Def, Ms Dynamite (who they used to dress), Black Thought and Common – and learning from them, Nzimande says the biggest goal is to build companies. “Fashion comes and goes, we can create brands but how do we treat our brands and how do they live?” He says fashion in South Africa needs to get to a point where big companies don’t shut down, where designers have the option of creating whatever they please, where iconic brands continue to evolve and make history.
Considering all their plans and how the pandemic has forced everyone to adjust to a new reality, Themba says they’re going to evolve while staying true to what has always been a part of their cool, “kwaito and hip-hop”, while catering to a younger appeal. In all of this, Nzimande concludes that he is most grateful that they are receiving their flowers while they can still smell them.