Designer, Businesswoman and Mother Fatuma Ndenzako Weaves Dual Cultures Into Something Beautiful

On the fringe of the Victoria Market in West Melbourne sits the sunlit store of Collective Closets. Run by sisters Fatuma and Laurinda Ndenzako, the local label is known for its sleek, refined silhouettes in bright, exuberant patterns, elegantly weaving together the sister’s African heritage with their Australian upbringing.

Today we chat with Fatuma about her life as a designer, businesswomen and mother to her RIDICULOUSLY adorable 2-year-old, Arlo!

Ashe Davenport

Designer, businesswoman and mother Fatuma Ndenzako – one half of the sister duo behind Collective Closets. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Fatuma’s husband Ryan and their two-year-old Arlo outside the Collective Closets store in West Melbourne. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Fatuma and Arlo! Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Cheeky Arlo in the change rooms at Collective Closets. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Some of the joyful patterns of Collective Closets. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Fatuma, Ryan and Arlo at home. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Arlo! Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Ryan and Arlo playing at home. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Fatuma and Arlo in the kitchen. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Future superstar in the making! Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Two-year-old Arlo. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Ryan, Fatuma and Arlo outside their Coburg home. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Ashe Davenport
3rd of July 2020

Fatuma Ndenzako and her sister Laurinda make up Collective Closets, a clothing label that brings together their Australian upbringing, and African roots. 

Angola born and Altona-raised, these days, Fatuma splits her time between her store in West Melbourne and home in Coburg, which she shares with her husband Ryan and their two year old son, Arlo.

Fatuma doesn’t do anything by halves, and neither does her sister.  I’m no mathematician, but I think that means together they equal… infinity? Their clothes are made with bold prints in exuberant colours… and family Christmases consist of seven course meals and dancing until 2am.

Fatuma’s  parents are third wave African immigrants, who moved here in the 1980s to a house in Altona in Melbourne’s inner west, where they played the role of ‘Only Black People in the Area’. Growing up was a balancing act of African and Australian culture. Fatuma has fielded her share of awkward questions about where she’s from, to which she answers, ‘Melbourne,’ to which people have responded by noting her uncanny Australian accent. Like, duh. Altona, mate.

Collective Closets is a reflection of the way Fatuma lives her life, blending traditional culture with freshness, joy and family, fastidiously put together and bursting with heart, somehow at the exact same time.

Hey Fatuma – thanks for chatting with us today! How do you and Ryan share the parenting load, and how has this been through COVID-19?

Things are a little bit different at the moment because of COVID-19. My husband has Type 1 diabetes, so we’ve really had to lockdown. Ryan’s got the more demanding job and mine is the more flexible one. I’m with Arlo three days during the week and he’s in daycare for two. Then Ryan does most of the parenting on the weekends while I’m working in the store. Even though it’s a little bit fiddly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I like that we’re showing Arlo there’s not just one way to have a career.

What was it like growing up in Melbourne?

We had an African-Australian upbringing, but apart from African school on the weekends, we did the same things as the other kids. The exception was watching Neighbours and Home and Away. My mother banned these shows because it showed kids talking back to their parents, which definitely wasn’t allowed in our house!

My siblings and I played a lot of sports, which we loved, plus it helped us to fit in. We were the only black people in Altona at the time, and most of the Western Suburbs.

What was that like?

I’ve been reflecting on it a lot in relation to Black Lives Matter. We felt like zoo animals a lot of the time. There were plenty of people who had never seen black people before, and who thought it was okay to stare or interrogate us with all kinds of questions. My skin colour was a real focal point when I was out and about until sometime in my late teens, early twenties.

And what changed then? 

I’ve built a strong community here, where colour isn’t at the forefront. I wear my dual cultures proudly, but, I mean, all you have to do is look on our website to see that we’re a business that celebrates women of colour. I love sharing the stories of the traditional African fabrics we use. We use a lot of shuka, for example, which is a checked cloth worn by the Maasai people of East Africa. Educating people about different cultures is a big part of what we do.

How has parenthood differed to your expectations?

I’d always been told that having a child grounds and settles you. I watched my mother find a lot of joy in motherhood, even the more mundane aspects. It’s really beautiful to be there and to watch this person learning and growing. But I discovered it’s really important for me to strike a balance between who I am as an individual and who I am as a parent.

My son has astonished me every step of the way. He was walking at 7 months and talking early. I’ve been surprised by all of his milestones so far. So that was another discovery: that my son was actually going to guide me a lot of the time, and at times I wasn’t going to be in charge.

I’m still getting my head around that bit. How have you been able to relinquish that control?

I wasn’t enjoying the feeling of being disappointed when things didn’t turn out a certain way. It was bringing a lot of unnecessary chaos into our lives, during a time that was stressful enough. We found it beneficial to not try and control every aspect of life and understand when to go with the flow.

What advice would you give to anyone juggling a business with a baby?

Do what you can when you can. Not everything is going to be perfect when you first start out, especially the little things. Know that a work day can be whatever you make it. It’s your business, so you need to make it work for you. That’s the joy of being your own boss. When Arlo was little, my hours were 7pm until midnight, or often just whenever he was napping. That worked for my family and kept me sane.

Family Favourites

Date night spot? 

We love going to Marion for a great pasta and wine whenever we can.

Sunday morning breakfast? 

Oats, eggs, toast, fruit, coffee, the works, but that’s not just on Sundays. It’s a really important meal for Ryan because of his diabetes. It needs to set him up for the day.

‘Me time’ activity? 

Watching really bad TV and hanging out with my friends.

Weekend getaway?

Aireys Inlet, hands down.

Check out Fatuma + her sister Laurinda’s fantastic local fashion brand, Collective Closets

Follow our fabulous family contributors, writer Ashe Davenport and photographer Bri Hammond. Also, read more about Ashe’s hilarious just-launched book ‘Sad Mum Lady’ here!

Collective Closets
Tuesday, 10am-4pm
Thursday – Sunday, 10am-4pm
103 Victoria Street

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