The morning of our interview, Nkhensani Nkosi bounces up to me, light as air. She is petite, pretty, busy, a compact bundle of energy. She leads me into her studio, the antithesis of a glamorous atelier and as devoid of pretension as Nkosi herself. Behind her, the photos of her collections make a colourful backdrop.
Sweeping swatches of material on the table aside, she smiles. “Behind the glamour of these photographs, there is a lot of hard work that goes on. Fashion is a business like any other, yet most people don’t possess the essential entrepreneurial skills. I am a graduate of the Stoned Cherrie School of Hard Knocks!”
Nkosi’s entry into the fashion world came about in a most unusual way. After reading Richard Branson’s autobiography, she thought, “Hell, why can’t I do something really big and wild like Richard Branson?”
And, in a moment many might call madness, she took her husband skydiving from a small plane for his birthday.
“You can never imagine that fear of being forced to jump,” she says. Landing safely on terra firma convinced her to trust her intuition to pursue her lifelong dream. And so, she gave birth to her first über-cool Stoned Cherrie catwalk collection.
Eleven years later, Nkosi is flying higher than ever.
Clothing was her first port of call. Nowadays, the Stoned Cherrie brand includes uniforms, accessories, home wear and eyewear, the latter selling in over 450 optometrist stores in Africa and Canada. Additionally, a range of their clothing is about to be stocked in 47 Foschini stores.
In April this year, she opened a lifestyle emporium in Parkmore, Johannesburg, which stocks the Stoned Cherrie Love Movement of bespoke ranges from upholstered furniture to decorative ceramics.
“I am a big dreamer – anyone who knows me will tell you that,” laughs Nkosi, who admits that plunging headlong into one’s dreams goes against her background, where caution and logic always reigned supreme.
Nkosi is one of two daughters born to academic parents. Her father Chabani Manganyi is a former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the former University of the North, Director-General in the Department of Education, and Vice-Principal of the University of Pretoria. He also has close ties to Wits where he was a Senior Research Fellow and Visiting Professor at Wits’ African Studies Institute. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature from Wits in 2008 and he still serves on the Board of Wits University Press. Nowadays, he spends his days writing books. “He is prolific,” says Nkosi proudly.
Nkosi’s mother works for the Gauteng Provincial Legislature.
“My parents ensured I grew up knowing what was happening in South Africa. I was schooled at Sacred Heart College, which dealt with integration.
“I grew up in Diepkloof, Soweto, but I spent some of my school holidays going to work with my dad at Wits, and both parents instilled in me a strong sense of social conscience. My father used to say, ‘We need a culture of psychotherapy. The nation doesn’t have that’.
Family remains of paramount importance to Nkosi, who extols her parents’ virtues. “[My parents] are truly honourable. I want to live their legacy. My father is so sophisticated emotionally and intellectually, yet he grew up in a rural area in an impoverished family. He even worked as a gardener. And my grandmother was illiterate.”
Nkosi was always creative; she wanted to be an actress and received award after award for drama at school. But her perplexed parents wondered what on earth she would get out of such a seemingly frivolous career.
Fortunately, she also inherited her parents’ sense of social activism and their leadership qualities. Once, in matric, she was chosen to participate in Edutrain, where South African school leaders travelled by train through KwaZulu Natal. “We went to places we didn’t imagine existed. We were a mixed bunch – right-wingers, PAC members, liberals. We furiously thrashed out our divergent opinions. But by the time we returned home, we were all committed friends. This changed my life,” she affirms. “One of my dreams is to conduct road shows like that and spread the language of love. Forget religion – love is the only thing that matters.”
During the State of Emergency, Nkosi would go to school in Observatory, Johannesburg, and then slink into the townships. “I was in the midst of a struggling dichotomy and I had to struggle to carve an identity.”
Nkosi believed she would pursue a career in politics. Indeed, having graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Industrial Psychology and Sociology from Witwatersrand University in 1994, she could easily have pursued more conventional careers. She participated in student marches and says, “Famous activists like David Webster, Ahmed Kathrada, Helen Joseph, and Amina Cachalia were my heroes. She remembers her jubilation when Mandela was released. “You could slice through that euphoria when he appeared at the FNB Stadium. I went on my own to his home in Orlando afterwards.”
She was persuaded by a friend to attend an audition at Wits Drama School and was thrust onto centre stage from then onwards, beginning with her role as Lulu the schoolgirl in the smash hit Sophiatown.
“I loved the ovations, the nerves and seeing my parents in the front row nearly every night.”
As a professional actress, Nkosi travelled overseas and it opened her eyes to the outside world. But, when, as MNet’s new kid on the block, she was chosen as spokesperson and scout for Face of Africa, her life took yet another trajectory.
“It was fantastic. I got exposed to the African aesthetic, something I couldn’t define – the soul, the beat of the country. This was a vision of Africa that the rest of the world didn’t even know existed at that time. I embraced it. I knew I wanted to create a uniquely African lifestyle brand that redefines Africa in the 21st century and puts it at the forefront.”
Around this time she also met Zam, her future husband, her soul mate and father of her four children.
“He is the most supportive person. He kept reassuring me that I was capable of creating the Stoned Cherrie range. He taught me to replace thoughts with visualising them as materialised, so that they turn into something beautiful. My parents also made huge sacrifices, even cashing in their policies and saving to assist me. My sister, Tinswalo, gave me the brand name. She was writing a script for a film called Black Stoned Cherry. I liked the sound of it, because in township lingo, it resonates with celebration and acknowledges strong, iconic women. Then, I walked down a supermarket aisle and saw a tin of cherries.” Nkosi voices her creative thought process. “In Japan there is cherry blossom time, when cherries don’t yet have a pip. It’s about cherries and the beautiful time of blossoms.
I couldn’t have named our range anything but Stoned Cherrie.”
So what’s next for this whirlwind of energy?
“I want to be a ‘creative activist’. My ultimate aim is to create a global African brand, inspired and manufactured in this country”. And what does she want most? “I would like to build the next stage of entrepreneurs and to do it with Government support. I want to ask the Wits Business School and the Gordon Institute of Business Science to help scour the landscape for the next generation of entrepreneurs. One of my life purposes is to inspire.”
It must be exhausting being Nkhesani. She is as hard-working as she is talented – and she is very talented indeed!