Rich Mnisi's collaborative mastery
Successful collaboration is taking South African designer Rich Mnisi anywhere and everywhere.
For a designer whose brand has such singular identity, Rich Mnisi has a surprisingly long list of collaborators. In just over 5 years, he's worked with Woolworths, Levi's, Coca Cola, Nivea, Nedbank, BMW, Volvo, Johnnie Walker and adidas. Each one has been a PR hit, often followed by considerable commercial success thanks to Mnisi's bold, directional creative choices, but collaboration is almost never smooth sailing.
Independent designers are understandably wary of its risks — collaboration can be expensive, logistically difficult, and dangerous for crucial (and often fragile) brand equity. When growth funding is hard to come by, however, collaboration can be hard to turn down. Designers often find themselves in a position to make mostly passive income when an offer from an established consumer brand comes along, income they may need to cover core operational functions or fund the next collection. They're not passive in the way that a licensing deal might be, but collaborations with established brands can take much of the logistical and operational burden off a designer's shoulders, or bankroll production completely while leaving the designer in charge of development and delivery.
With so much on the line for a small, young company, what defines the approach to collaboration that has amplified Rich Mnisi with no notable brand damage or dilution?
One of Rich's longest partnerships has been with the Diageo portfolio's global whisky market leader, Johnnie Walker. Treading carefully at the beginning of the relationship is one element that's contributed to its longevity. To start, Rich only worked with them on the platform of his rising personal brand. "I was very worried about associating with an alcohol brand," Mnisi explains, "So you'll see that everything was tied to me as a person, not the brand. But when we did the pop up store with them, it was just so amazing, the amount of people that we could engage with; it just opened us up to a new market." The pop up store formed part of Johnnie Walker's 200th anniversary celebration, and was the second collaboration between the two brands to involve custom-made product after the limited edition sleepwear Mnisi created for the lockdown-friendly home screenings of Johnnie Walker's origin documentary, 'The Man Who Walked Around The World.'
Working with a tiered brand (with a range starting at entry level red and black labels and continuing to the luxury scotch blue & reserve lines) also gave Rich and Diageo the opportunity to tailor collaborative projects for different market segments, sharpening product and message relevance and providing more flexibility to tell unique, interconnected stories. With less pressure on each round of collaboration, focus and experimentation were a little easier for Rich, who started his fashion brand without luxury sector experience to reference.
Mnisi's furniture design work with Southern Guild, a platform for contemporary collectible South African design, is another example of careful pacing. "It’s really important that when you’re working with an artist who is capable of putting on a solo show, that you allow that to happen organically... the individual has to be ready on multiple levels," Southern Guild co-founder and CEO Trevyn McGowan explains. Following an introductory two-piece capsule of sculptural furniture art, Rich developed a seven-piece collection for his first solo exhibition titled Nyoka. McGowan reports that great sales accompany the collection's extensive media coverage and client reception.
Match values first, brand books second
While aesthetic alignment makes the creative direction process smoother and a brand identity match can ease the challenges of sharing campaign space, brand values are what Rich looks at first. Every collaborator has a core characteristic in common with the Rich Mnisi brand that allows them to work together on shared mission and vision: A bold and unapologetic voice, a passion for youth and youth culture, the tenacious pursuit of luxury craft or a reverent respect for traditional culture in the contemporary world. "I have to think about whether it's something that is informed by desperation or whether it's something that can actually build and extend the brand," says Mnisi. "I connect with brands that align with me and push the [Rich Mnisi] brand as well, so it doesn't stay in one place."
His partners do the same — Trevyn McGowan praises Rich's unique creative voice, but also his open spirit and respectful collaborative process: "He’s super fast, super decisive and despite being a relatively young designer, he’s very mature for his age — it really does feel like he’s been doing this for decades. I think that’s what he has in common with global superstar designers: he works efficiently, respectfully and with intention."
The majority of Rich Mnisi's brand collaborators are lifestyle brands that don't sell fashion or even wearable merchandise. While this sometimes presents a challenging learning curve for both parties, it leaves a mostly open canvas for Rich's bold, contrasting colour palette, abstract prints and signature cuts and silhouettes. When a fashion brand like Woolworths or adidas sits across the table, the rules of engagement change, so getting onto the same page about the shared goal early on is key to a smooth process and a coherent collection.
His Southern Guild collaborations exit fashion completely, and require even more dynamic thinking to keep identity intact in a new medium. Carefully selecting partners who share an understanding and appreciation of a brand's creative identity is crucial to making collaboration a safe space for fluid, boundary pushing work that doesn't break what designers work hard to build. So is meeting partners halfway, and bringing as much as one can to work that's outside the comfort zone. "Rich’s understanding of form, of sculpture, of colour, of pattern, are all very translatable from fashion to sculpture," McGowan shares. "The pieces we created together aren’t actually furniture designs – they are, simply, sculptural art pieces. The way that he designs is very three-dimensional, so he has the mind of a sculptor as well as that of a fashion designer – an incredibly exciting kind of mind to work with for us."
Rich Mnisi's collaborations all live comfortably within the African contemporary luxury world his brand inhabits. That's by design, and reflects an approach to collaboration that flexes creatively around a fixed design philosophy to meet each project's needs.
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