Los Angeles design, African culture

Chipo Mudzengi-Hwami pins together her latest design inside her Chatworth home. Photo by Alan Castro
Chipo Mudzengi-Hwami pins together her latest design inside her Chatworth home. Photo by Alan Castro

Along black hooded sweater is laid across the table. Stuck somewhere between a cardigan and a robe in its style, the soft quilted fabric reflects little light due to its semi-matte finish. This contemporary article of clothing draws inspiration from Los Angeles street fashion and the rich heritage of Zimbabwe. At the helm of its design is Zimbabwe native Chipo Mudzengi-Hwami,  the owner of the award-winning Marimba sweater by Panashé Designs.

Mudzengi-Hwami was born in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. In 1998, she travelled to the United States through a contact from Ohio. Later, she moved to Chicago, then to Texas for different opportunities and weather. Mudzengi-Hwami now studies business marketing at Pierce College.

“I hated Chicago weather. I hate snow, so I moved,” Mudzengi-Hwami laughs. “My friends were out there [in Texas], so I moved to Texas. But my move to California was because I was getting married. My husband was [in California] so I lost the battle.”

Though her garments are identifiably L.A. style, Mudzengi-Hwami’s roots come from her inspirations back home, her mother, a seamstress, and father, a leatherworker. Both are a part of the clothing industry, but with their own specialties.

“My dad came from a very humble background. He started this leather company. He was not educated. He hardly did, I think, first or second grade and that was it,” says Mudzengi-Hwami. “He started this company of what he called Shungu Leathercrafts. Shungu is almost like a drive, like a determination, that’s what it stands for. Looking at him working, essentially from nothing, to making something that is really big and tangible [was] admirable. He was really good at what he did.”

Her mother also played a key role in shaping and inspiring her eye for fashion. Though she was never properly trained, she was able to create from what she learned from her mother.

“When I started off with my designing process, I didn’t know how to make patterns either so I just remembered what my mom did and kinda just worked from there,” says Mudzengi-Hwami.

A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Mudzengi-Hwami would usually struggle with her designs.

“There was always a doubt that person will definitely come back and say ‘This doesn’t look right’ or ‘Look, what you did over here.’ So I always struggle with that.”

That’s when Mudzengi-Hwami decided to receive proper training at Los Angeles Trade Technical College’s Design (LATTC) and Media Arts department in 2013.

“At some point, I was like, ‘You know what? I really want to know how to do this the right way so I can be confident in what I do’,” says Mudzengi-Hwami. “Going to LATTC gave me that boost in my confidence. I went through the fashion design program and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I was fortunate enough to have the best teachers around me. You can tell they are passionate about what they do and want to empower and pass on what they know on to the students.”

One such teacher is Thomas J. Walker, who mentored Mudzengi-Hwami at LATTC. Walker has been an instructor at the college for four years. He teaches basic fashion and art, as well as the technical classes related to the design of clothing. These classes provide students the knowledge to create concept sketches, learn about fabric, draw out the garments, as well as learn about price points in merchandising the products.

“She always went well beyond what’s expected in the students. I don’t know of any weaknesses that she had. Her strength was the fact that she actually wanted to achieve the project. She made sure she executed the projects really well,” Walker says.

Even while in school, Mudzengi-Hwami maintained the shungu lifestyle she learned from her father. In spring 2015, Mudzengi-Hwami enrolled in what is known as the “Gold Thimble” class.

“The Gold Thimble is a class that the students take usually at the end of their stay in the design program. This is almost like the crowning glory for the students because, at this point, they get to show all their skill sets that they’ve learned and acquired while they have been here,” Walker explains. “With that, there’s also a fashion show that actually displays the product where the faculty members, as well as people in the community, are able to attend.”

All students who take the class can participate in the fashion show. The show is comprised of eight categories for judging the theme of the show, swimwear, sportswear, men’s wear, evening wear, day dresses, children’s, and “After 5.”

The theme for the spring 2015 show was the ‘90s era and designers had to create clothing inspired from the 1990s. Mudzengi-Hwami won and was presented the award by fashion designer and hip-hop recording artist and producer Kanye West.

“First of all, it was a shock that I had won,” says Mudzengi-Hwami. “I just could not believe it and having to have him give me the award was kind of just like a cherry on top. I didn’t even realize how big it was that moment. I was just in another world, on cloud nine. Didn’t even realize what was going on. A couple days later I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that was Kanye! My award was handed to me by Kanye!’ So I put that on Facebook and it went wild. People in my country went wild. They put me in the papers. It was huge.”

Mudzengi-Hwami’s theme entry was a Lion King-inspired long skirt named “African Pride.” The colors, textiles, and patterns all played with the idea for a cohesive story.

“For some reason, I’m not sure what it is, but I like orange. I like the rust, orange color,” says Mudzengi-Hwami. “Orange seems to stand out a lot for me. There seems to be a little bit of orange everywhere, but it’s the deep rich orange color, not the orange color in the fruit.”

Mudzengi-Hwami’s inspiration comes from anything she sees that fascinates her. From a picture, to a flower, or from the various fabrics, she will pick san item’s element and create from it while adding a little bit of her Zimbabwean charm.

“When I get into a fabric store,  I feel like a kid in candy store. Ideas would just be running through my head,” says Mudzengi-Hwami.

Mudzengi-Hwami is currently attending Pierce College. It is her goal to get an associate’s degree in business marketing—a skill set she plans to apply to her company Panashé Designs.

“I don’t know the business side. I only know the technical side of what I do. I thought it was good for me to actually have a background, to know how to run the business,” says Mudzengi-Hwami. “It’s not to say that I’m a one-man-show, but I’d like to get an understanding.”

Krista Stewart models for Mudzengi-Hwami’s products. After meeting Mudzengi-Hwami in 2015 for a job opportunity at Panashé Designs, the two quickly became close friends.

“Chipo told me when I met her that the photographer was the one who sent her his pick and then she did the final pick. She really liked my look and that’s why she brought me in for a physical audition,” Stewart said.

Since then, Mudzengi-Hwami and Stewart have kept a close relationship inside and outside of work.

“She actually designed a few pieces that she’d let me wear to premieres and other events for my acting or modeling. It’s really cool to have special perks but, among that, we became very close friends because she’s just a wonderful woman,” Stewart said.