When Sustainable Innovation meets Culture.


The ability to innovate in our current social and environmental climate requires much thought into how it will affect the rest of society. Sustainability informs many of our functions and ways of designing because we can no longer afford to exploit resources and people. It is, therefore, essential to highlight innovators whose design processes include at least two of the triple bottom line requirements which are people, the planet and profits.

For this article we look at the work of Thando Simelane and Katlego Tsoagong, two young sustainable innovators making use of pre-existing sneaker soles and cultural influences to design their version of Air Imbadada. Imbadada are sandals made from cut-up tyres typically worn by people of the Zulu culture, but also revered across the country. The Q and A below is meant to familiarise the community with their story and to inspire those who see value in repurposing practises within the fashion industry.

Thando on the left and katlego on the right.

1. What is up-cycling in your own words and how does it influence sustainable fashion?

The art of giving a garment or shoe another chance. The textile industry is the second biggest contributor of carbon emissions, so sustainability at any level, can literally slow down the doomsday clock. The influence of upcycling can be seen by big brands such as Patagonia who introduced a collection called Re-Crafted which offers 1 of 1 pieces made from fabric waste. The future is green and in this very moment more people care about the environment than ever before. 

2. How did your communities influence you?

From being street wear designers first, upcycling izimbadada with sneakers was like second nature because sneakers are one those special top 2 or 3 important items in street wear. The culture touch comes from being born and raised in Joburg, trying to connect with tradition and culture by exploring as much as possible since we don’t have much of it here. 

3. Who have been your strongest influences in fashion and why? 

Virgil Abloh for his ability to transform people’s outlook on street wear while making it high-end, the streets went crazy when he got famous. RIP. Raf Simmons for his out the box and punk unapologetic expressions in his work. Ralph Lauren for the simplicity in his work and perfection with every piece made. Brands like Nike, The North Face and Patagonia for their hungry and passion for future innovation and functionality in their designs. 

4. How did you come up with the idea for your business?     

We realized after prolonged use of imbadada that the level of comfortability left a lot to be desired. The problem lead us directly to a solution; cutting off the (tyre) straps of the traditional sandals, sourcing old sneakers and cutting the upper, then fusing the sole of the sneaker with the imbadada straps to create something truly unique. 

5. What led you two to your career?

The love and need for clothes, being able to wear what you made and sometimes the exclusivity that is one of one pieces.

6. What are you most proud of accomplishing as a business? 

Getting national interest in the work we do, it’s been 5 years since we have been working individually and together on different projects. 

7. How does sustainability influence your daily practises and production methods?      

We have come to a point where when we could be eating in the street and there’s no bin around we’d walk with an empty container till we find a bin lol.

In terms of production, sustainable design is one of our primary elements including innovation and function, and each project needs at least 2 of the elements. 

8. What would you do differently if you had a chance?   

Putting as much passion into the business aspect as the creative side in the beginning. It helps knowing how to maneuver through this cutthroat capitalist system. The earlier you’re equipped the smoother the journey. 

9. Share something about your business that you would like to see improve.

Output to be honest. A lot of great ideas take time, research and planning which can drastically slow the production process but we’ve planted seeds these past few years and blooming season will inevitably be upon us.

10. Describe a scene of your vision for the future.

Travelling Africa, studying cultural items and trying to develop them to modern day standards. We also hope to have a massive impact for a sustainable design future while contributing styles and methods to future.

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