In this installment of Creative Activist I take my hat off to bright young thing Milisuthando Bongela. The Umtata born 25-year-old writer, fashionista, trend observer, fashion commentator and businesswoman, who lives in Joburg, takes us through her journey in the fashion, blogging and activist worlds she lives and loves. Milisuthando’s online footprint is quite comprehensive, so I wanted to delve deeper and find things we wouldn’t readily find out just by googling the creative activist.
By far, the most interesting person I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and I know you will agree after reading this. Miss Milli is an inspiration…
Who is the bella named Miss Milli?
Miss Milli is actually my digital persona, though it’s a nickname I’ve inherited in the past couple of years. I am my mother’s child, meaning I’m not a regular or normal Xhosa girl. I’ve never swum with the current and I think that sums me up.
       
What are some of the many hats you don?
I’m a freelance wheeler-dealer. I’m a journalist by “training” but I also write what I see. I listen and observe then formulate a point of view from the default of being a bilingual black woman living in South Africa. I’m also interested in developing the fashion industry through my writing but also practically by working to find solutions to the many problems we face. Right now, I’m putting my money where my mouth is by half focusing my energies on selling South African designers through Pulchritude.
When did you first fall in love with fashion?
The light went on when I was sitting on my bed one Sunday afternoon reading my older sister’s Cosmopolitan magazine.  My heart stopped when I saw Themba Darkie’s clothes for the first time.  I used to wear vintage when it was very uncool and seeing it in a magazine validated my sense of style somehow in my 15-year-old mind. It was then that I knew I needed to be part of this industry.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I still don’t know if I should be one, or that I am one. It’s a big thing to call yourself when you are still learning the ropes. My dad was an accomplished author so I’ve always had the skill.  It’s a daily process of packing and unpacking.
Tell me about the journey of finding what you want out of life and self?
It’s still happening.  A lot of young people in South Africa are restless. Clever, talented people and I think it’s because we are the first generation to really have anything we bloody well want – everything is so accessible.  I’ve done a lot of different things in an effort to “find what I was meant to do” and I think even though I have not had the Eureka moment, I get closer to it every day because I’m so hungry for it.  I have no patience for doing things for money or security. I need to be able to sleep well at night and that’s been my goal since I left Cosmo at the end of 2007. This is the happiest time for me. I finally took the leap and although it’s not easy – I know I made the right choice.
When did you start blogging and why?
I started my blog in February 2010 just before I went to New York Fashion Week. I wanted to document my journey. It’s kinda grown since then and I’m proud of myself for maintaining it, I hardly ever follow through with things like that.
Tell me about your Missmillib blog?
It’s become something more than just a place to find cool, alternative fashionistas, photographers and images. It’s my own private magazine and a platform for me to be heard without shouting. I love it and am so grateful for the 95 people that follow it and for the ones to who take the time to read it, even if they don’t agree with me.
How do you find balance being writer, blogger, fashionista, and creative activist?
I meditate when I can’t take it (the work) anymore. I write in my journal when I’ve been doing too much of what I call “veneer living” – where one just lives on the surface of things.  I am also very fortunate to have wise and loving people that I surround myself with, people who remind me that the most important thing is to be a good person, do for and stand for what is fundamentally right. I spend days by myself so that’s a great way of getting things done, because it’s all on me.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I find it from people who do things that I admire, or things that I would like to associate myself with.
How do you define creativity?
To me, creativity is the ability to make people feel just by looking, listening and touching.  It’s one of God’s gifts to humans.
What is the importance of finding inspiration from Africa?
Creatively, I don’t think there are many other places to find the inspiration that Africa can conjure up.  It’s important that we are inspired by and use our surroundings to communicate our message to the world.  The world is almost out of original ideas, and we are sitting on plenty.  This place is inspiring because there is so much that can still be done to make it what it was meant to be.
       
Some of the high’s and lows of the fashion writing business?
Being misinterpreted or misrepresented is definitely a low that exists in both and sometimes that’s not in my control.  I love fashion because we are a young industry that’s still making mistakes and everyday is an opportunity to rectify those mistakes. There are so many possibilities.
                   
What are some of the accolades you’ve received?
Just one, I’m still very young. I won the Sanlam Journalism Award in 2009 and I’m wondering whether I’ll be the last “Sanlam” winner because they have since pulled out of the fashion industry. I’d hate that.

Tell me about your trip to New York Fashion week
I chose to go to NY after I won the Sanlam Journalism Award. The prize was that I could go to any fashion event in the world between a specific time, then I’d have to come back and write about it.  I decided to blog about it for SA Fashion Week because they were kind enough to hook me up with a bit of work experience while I was there.  Instead of attending the shows as a spectator or journalist, I wanted to see what happens behind the scenes at NYFW.  Lucilla Booysen introduced me to her friend and creator of Video Fashion, Marlene Cardin who created the media company in the 1970s in NY.  It’s like style.com but it’s an actual channel in many countries and it’s all about covering fashion news from shows to designer interviews.  I was there as a spot marker, meaning I had to be specific shows marking the spot for Video Fashion’s photographers and cameramen on the media riser, the place at the end of the runway where photographers stand. It was amazing to say the least because I got to see things that the magazines and websites don’t cover; I got to see how shows are put together. It was amazing seeing people like Kirsten Dunst, Sasha Pivovarova, Lara Stone, Andre Leon Talley and Whoopi Goldberg but a meter from me just doing their thing.  I will definitely go back to NY. Their fashion industry is a prototype of a system that works. It’s not as couture and intimidating as the European Fashion Scene, in terms of talent, some of our designers could be places right next to American designers.  But when it comes to the structure of the American industry, we lag faaaaaar behind.  Everybody has a role and EVERYTHING is taken very very seriously, which isn’t the case in SA. There are rankings and organisation when it comes to who does what – the media, models, guest, buyers and designers each do what they need to do to make sure the machine runs and it was amazing to watch. We will get there though.  What do they say about Rome?
*read Mili’s “Lessons from NY Fashion Week” here
Which cities hold a special place in your heart and why?
Johannesburg.  I mean I like the other places I’ve been to but I have a serious love hate relationship with Joburg. No other place winds me up and down like Jozi and it’s gritty beauty. I also really really loved New York.  You really have to know who you are and what you are about to feel adequate there. There’s something daring about that.  I’d love to go to San Francisco and Tokyo soon.
What do you love about Joburg?
This place lacks the complacency you find in other South African cities. People hustle the hell out of life here and I love that black people don’t have to feel out of place in fancy places. I don’t think there’s any other place on earth where black women are as celebrated. That means a lot to me.
What is your new baby, Pulchitrude, about?
It’s still very much a baby.  The concept behind Pulchritude is to take local designers to the streets.  One aspect of the traveling shop is the market sales I have at the Jozi Food Market every month and wherever else if I’ve got stock.  Through that, I meet new customers and shop buyers and the idea is form relationships with both.  I want to take designer clothes to shops all over the country and as a result, make the clothes more accessible to the public all over South Africa.  I have 8 different clothing and jewelry designers each month and the aim is to build a brand (Pulchritude) that will be synonymous with the growth and flourishing of South African fashion.
Where else can people see / purchase?
One day, it will be online but for now, Joburgers must come to the month end sales at Jozi Food Market, or my house when there’s bubbly.  The best places of course, are emporiums like Just, Mememe, Big Blue and The Space – places that stock only locally produced designer clothing. That’s where people can start.
The future of Pulchitrude– where to from here?
Around the country; I may even employ a person or twenty one day. There’s a lot on the books, stay tuned.
How do we get hold of you?
email: milisuthandobongela@gmail.com – this is the best way to contact me


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