Photo Credit: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Woolmark International Pty Ltd

Mmuso Maxwell Designers on Winning the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation

We met up with Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko, the duo behind South African brand Mmuso Maxwell. We spoke about their upbringing, winning the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, and more.

After a two year internship with veteran South African designer David Tlale, Mmuso Maxwell was born. The brand, founded by the young duo Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko, has since established a name for themselves in the African fashion industry. With successful works with A-list artists like Beyoncé — on her Black is King album — they continue to set the bar on what it means to be a successful emerging designer brand.

The duo first started to make noise in 2017, when they won the South Africa’s Fashion Week’s Sunglass Hut New Talent Search. Two years later, they came second at the 30 Under 30: The New Stars Arise Fashion Show competition held in Lagos, Nigeria. The duo walked home with $50,000, helping them establish their presence on a global landscape.

Last month, Potsane and Boko won the biggest award of their career: beating out 200 designers throughout the world, they took home the The Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, after presenting a Merino wool collection for their Autumn/Winter 2022 line.

After their big win, OkayAfrica was able to meet up with the duo and chat about their upbringing, winning the Lagerfeld Award, and more.

How would you describe your Mmuso Maxwell brand?

Maxwell Boko: I think that the perfect description of our brand is that it is inspired by African heritage, but, the most important part is that it is mixed with contemporary culture. It’s basically our point of view of our heritage. We’re modern young people who are living with technology and science, and are influenced by those things. So even if it’s still our African heritage, it’s still our own interpretation.

Mmuso Potsane: Our brand is a modern interpretation of who an African woman is. Our brand sees itself as a global brand, and we do not want to limit it to look like an ordinary African brand, but it is positioned to be like a global brand, while maintaining our African roots, interpretations and experiences.

How did the collaboration between the both of you start?

Potsane: We met during the internship from 2015-2017. At the end of the internship, we decided to bring our pieces together to make one collection because we had similar aesthetics. From there, we just decided to continue onwards as a brand.

That’s interesting. You know, the fashion industry can most times be more competition than collaboration. How are you navigating the times you might have contrasting ideas?

Boko: I think that the reason why we joined forces together is because we had similar tastes in general. What has worked for us over the five years is that we’re not dramatic about our approach to things. It’s not “this or nothing." We’re always open to each other's critiques. We also do not question our individual strengths at all.

Potsane: Yeah, we’ve sort of found a way to agree to disagree. We have somehow found a way to come together to have one vision and objection. So for us, if any of us feels strongly about something, we just give it a chance to see how it plays out. If it doesn’t, we find a way to navigate it.

Mmuso Maxwell designers with Saul Nash

Saul Nash, winner of the International Woolmark Prize, and Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko of Mmuso Maxwell, winners of the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, celebrate with models wearing their designs.

Photo Credit: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Woolmark International Pty Ltd

How about winning the Woolmark Karl Lagerfeld Innovation Award? How did that happen?

Boko: I mean, we applied, even though I said to Mmuso that Woolmark is something that’ll happen to us, maybe two, three years down the line, and that’s because it’s generally for established designers. I always figured that it’ll happen at a later date for us. So when they reached us to inform us that we were finalists, I thought, “that’s crazy.”

When I saw the other finalists, I thought that there was no chance to win; But as we progressed in the program, I saw why it was the right time for us. It helped us as a brand in terms of making our products. The eight months were very challenging, but the thing that I enjoyed the most was working with local artisans. I think that it’s even one of the reasons we won.

And just on the side, I think it’s very hard for us to see from inside how much of a big deal winning the award is. It’s always our loyal people who help us see and understand it.

How has winning this prize influenced your brand? I mean, how important do you think platforms like this are?

Potsane: I think it’s important because it allows you access to spaces in the industry that are very out of reach for a lot of African brands. It influences and helps us to think more/differently, and just on that level, play by the rules. You’re no longer thinking locally, but internationally. It’s made us more serious about our business and how to run it. People take your work more seriously, so that makes you take it more seriously too.

In terms of funding, it’s something that’s been a struggle. I mean, as a designer, you have to showcase your work and that requires a lot of money for stuff like shows, showrooms, and so on. With the help that we’re getting from the people like Birimian — some sort of investment group for African brands — it helps you ease the stress this induces.

And what are some of the challenges you’ve faced during this? Are there ways you’re now navigating it?

Boko: When we started our brand, there was no initial capital for us to start our brand. But we got a little support, and that made our next challenge be sustaining our coming collections; but recently, our major challenge has been fabric sourcing and production. There are no facilities to produce the quality we aspire to.

Potsane: To navigate these challenges, we really just go with it one step at a time, and also speak with those who can assist with things like this, such as Birimian. In terms of production, we have to come to a compromise to ensure getting the quality we want.

You're a sustainable brand. What are some of the practices you’re doing that makes it sustainable?

Potsane: We utilize local crafts and local artisans. It’s something we’ve always been passionate about since we started our brand. We use homegrown yarns for production, and working with artisans makes us follow the route of slow fashion.

Boko: We’ve always had an affinity for natural fibers since we started. As an African creative, you’re inherently sustainable because we’re not prone to waste. It’s not something we can afford. When we buy fabrics, we buy exactly what we need, and all the things we’ve done so far have been in pre-orders. We do not produce with hopes that someone will buy what we’ve made. All pieces go to our clients.

Are there creatives that inspire the work that you do?

Potsane: The people that inspire our brand, we already currently work with. So people like Tatenda Chidora, a photographer. We also love Tony Gum. She’s an amazing artist. Same as Chloe Andrea and Daniel Obasi. We totally love these people, and are highly inspired by them.

Photo Credit: Alfred Sarpeh

DJ A-K is the Ghanaian DJ Trying to Add Afrobeats to Your Morning Commute

DJ A-K reflects on establishing Afrobeats in the AM, his popular Clubhouse-based Afrobeats show.

The dominance of Afrobeats can’t be denied at the moment. Its global run in 2021 was a profound turn for the genre, with artists like Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tems, Ckay taking a deserved spotlight. But all players don’t get the same praise or attention, especially those behind turntables. While these artists are visible totems, sculpted down to their artistry and branding, the ecosystem still places DJs on the fringes despite their contribution to Afrobeats’ global momentum.

After the coronavirus pandemic struck two years ago, digital solutions emerged to fill in the void. Clubhouse, in particular, became an internet blockbuster success. The audio-chat platform weaved the world into a hive, and this was where DJ A-K found a following curating songs in a dedicated space titled Afrobeats in the AM.

DJ A-K , whose initials stand for Aaron Kordie, is originally from Ghana but is now based in New York. He held his first room in late 2020. The audience grew bigger the following year, attracting people of the Black diaspora and beyond.

For DJ A-K , initial reactions were mind blowing. People were tuning in from all over the world and often tweeted their reactions during the show, appreciating the music they heard. The room quickly became a favorite. Afrobeats was already huge outside of Clubhouse, but being trafficked into the platform brought a different experience. In the third year of the pandemic, DJ A-K reflects on establishing Afrobeats in the AM, his other creative endeavors and the trajectory of Afrobeats.

DJ A-K yellow outfit

"The goal was to help people get their mornings or days started with some great positive energy and great music to help uplift their spirits," DJ A-K said.

Photo Credit: Kofi Dua

What motivated you to create a Clubhouse room dedicated to playing Afrobeats?

The motivation to create a Clubhouse room dedicated to playing Afrobeats came from my love for music, and for the Afrobeats genre as well as the yearning to spread great vibes through a different medium, since we were all stuck inside during the mandatory quarantine. After a quick group chat conversation with my friends and co hosts, Brieri Ake, Akosua Ayim and Olive Uche, a 90 minute morning show was created on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 7:30 - 9AM EST. The goal was to help people get their mornings or days started with some great positive energy and great music to help uplift their spirits, as the world was going through so much with the pandemic. I also aimed to grow a dedicated audience and community that would appreciate, support and help the show grow in the future.

It’s been almost a year since Afrobeats In the AM came to Clubhouse. What has changed between then and now?

Due to busy schedules, the show is now [only] on Friday mornings from 8 - 9 AM EST. Several app updates have also made it easier for the room to be discovered and there have also been some improvements in sound quality as well.

Why did you decide to host the room in the morning (US time)?

For one, the current morning shows that we hear on our commutes to work don’t play enough of the music we want to hear and I wanted to solve the problem of underrepresentation of Afrobeats music on radio. We would often hear the same two or three songs constantly repeated on (New York based radio stations) Hot 97 or Power 105, and I wanted to bring some variety directly to our audience members who love and appreciate the culture.

How do you select songs?

I select the songs for the show based on the tempo and energy that I feel would be best for the morning or afternoon. I try to select songs with positive messages but still have enough energy to not dull the listener. I also incorporate requests from audience members as well as new songs from popular artists as well as artists on the rise. I also include sounds from across the continent of Africa such as Highlife, Amapiano, Zouke, Afrodance, Coupé-décalé, and more.

What’s your thoughts on the current momentum of Afrobeats globally?

I always knew that Afrobeats was going to take over and dominate the global sound waves. It was only a matter of time. The Afrobeats sound is naturally eclectic and reminiscent of so many other elements of other genres that it immediately gets you in a great vibe and mood. This aspect makes the sound easier to absorb regardless of any language barriers of the lyrics. Additionally, the genre has a lot of talented artists and producers who have been contributing to developing the sound for a significant amount of time, so it's inevitable for the fruits of their labor to create a significant worldwide impact.

How important are DJs in the future of Afrobeats’ domination?

DJs are tastemakers and help expose new and classic records to their audiences. The way a record is played in the clubs or at events affects how people from all types of backgrounds will discover and come to love and appreciate that song as well as the genre. Without the constant contributions from DJs, it would be difficult for songs to have a significant impact.

Aside from hosting Afrobeats in the AM, you run an event company that put together events like Ghana Made in the US. How did Ghana Made come about?

My event team, Big 5 Productions, has been responsible for creating various successful events in New York City and has served as a bridge for African cultural experiences. Ghana Made was birthed 8 years ago with the goal to fulfill a need and to create the largest and most successful cultural celebration of Ghana’s Independence, while uniting the Ghanaian diaspora across the tristate. We aim to continue this event and improve upon it with live artist performances, art installations, brunch events and many more.

Which Afrobeats artists are you really into currently?

I am currently listening to Black Sherif, Buju, Amaarae, Juls, Wizkid, Bella Shmurda, NSG, Fireboy DML, R2Bees, Yung D3mz, and Lojay, to name a few.

What’s the future of Afrobeats in the AM?

The future of Afrobeats in the AM is to create a strong community around the brand and to take the show to a platform that would support our efforts in showcasing the music while expanding our audience. I have been in recent talks with the good people at Airtime and we are very excited to collaborate with them and utilize new technologies to spread the great vibes of the Afrobeats genre. We are also working on creating events, where we get to partner with other brands and celebrate with listeners. We also most definitely aim to become syndicated in the future and reach much wider audiences across the globe.

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