The native Nguni cattle breed that populates Zimbabwe and Southern Africa has global acclaim for coats that comes out of its hide and its sturdy resistance to genetic diseases. In Zimbabwe its debonair coloured and multi-pattern skin is the inspiration of “A Tribe Called Zimbabwe” an artisanal fashion enterprise that is moulding ornaments out of hides thrown away from beef abattoirs.
This is the initiative of Nomakhosazana “Zana” Ncube in Bulawayo – the arts capital of Zimbabwe.
Zana is an architect. Through her profession, engineering built spaces, glass and concrete buildings, are her workplace, but sculpting traditional fashion apparel from the skins of native Nguni cattle is her joy and other skill. “I am not limited to cowhide,” she says of her ornaments that have attracted orders from Canada and Europe. “We make neckties, caps, jackets, custom gowns from sheep and goat hide too”.
There is a unique reason why the native Nguni cow breed is held in high esteem among artisanal fashion sculptors who are improvising the scene in Zimbabwe. The Nguni cattle breed is the name given by first colonial settlers to describe the indigenous cattle found in Southern Africa, explains Zana. “They were initially considered genetically inferior to foreign breeds. It turned out to be untrue”. She says according to Western historical hypothesis Nguni cattle descended from both bos Taurus and Bos indicus cattle and reached the African continent around 8 000 years ago at the time of the Bantu civilisation migration. “The skin colours on a Nguni cow are a signature themselves. They have no duplicate. No other Nguni cow can have a similar pattern…ever”.
This is why Zana, like the engineer she is, is so detailed about styling her ornaments with only genuine cowhide. “Hide is very delicate, it scars, burns and stains easily if not handled properly,” she says. “We do not kill animals for their hides. We are very committed to only using skins that are a by-product of the beef industry. We keep meticulous eye on the waste of each hide. We only use scrap leather to make smaller goods”.
So, Zana takes ecological preservation to minute last detail by using recyclable Kraft paper in packaging and lessening print colour to colour. “Our Kraft boxes are designed to be a decorator item, keepsake memorabilia or even or repurposed,” she says.
A Tribe called Zimbabwe is an idea hatched in 2013 but rolled out in 2018. The delay mirrors the moans of most Zimbabwe entrepreneurs who are pummelled by one of Africa´s most troubled economies. “I applied for a bank loan. It did not come through. I used my own resources,” says Zana. “I overcome attitudes that leather manufacturing industry is for males and women cannot produce meaningful value. Some said hide skin could not be a wearable fashion material in the modern era”.
Zana gets her hands greasy as the creative director of A Tribe Called Zimbabwe. “I work with five artisans and occasionally engage (painters, sculptors, carpenters) with different skillsets in the fashion and leather processes. Creative work is unpredictable. It has addictive adrenaline”.
Zana´s architecture education funnelled her entry into sculpting hide skins into fashion ornaments. “Architecture is in essence the art of creating habitable spaces. Fashion is also the art of creating spaces – intimate ones. An engineered space can be for multiple people. A garment is inhabited by one body,” she says. Architecture and fashion are about tectonics – how materials come together. I make art out of concrete, steel and glass and join them to form aesthetically pleasing buildings. This too is how I make art out of how cowhide, chiffon, feathers and horns come together to form a beautiful garment”.
She calls her flagship Nguni cowhide neckties premium. This does not imply that they are expensive or exclusive. “Premium refers to superior hides crafted by skilled sculptors. Every Zimbabwean who celebrates our cultural heritage is our ideal customer,” she says.
It is not a coincidence that A Tribe Called Zimbabwe is rooted in Bulawayo – a city that typifies post-industrial collapse after two decades of Zimbabwe’ economy going almost bankrupt. “The City of Kings and Queens (as Bulawayo is colloquially referred) is magical. I believe Bulawayo is the capital of the arts in Zimbabwe. Here the arts naturally flourish. My garments invoke a sense of proud African royalty”. It is here in Bulawayo where she makes sure that 80% of her employees are women. Her goal is to activate the energy and ideas of Zimbabwe women which is often overlooked.
Zana has been forward thinking. She has patented her products. “In Zimbabwe it is an expensive feat to register a patent for any business especially a small business,” she says. “It is important for Zimbabwe and Africa to measure the value of our inventions and legally protect them. This gives us an edge in global markets,” she says.
“What is really important,” she says, is to model vintage Zimbabwe culture through the lens of today´s fashion and architecture.