Self-taught Soweto designer Zamaswazi Nkosi is all about reinventing designs. But first, he had to reinvent himself, from soccer to sartorial star.
On a scorching hot day, we travel to the Zola area of Soweto, a township south of Johannesburg in South Africa.
Despite the soaring mercury, the trip is worth it.
Zola was known to be home to some of South Africa’s greatest musicians including Brenda Fassie, Mandoza and M’du, as well as soccer players John ‘Shoes’ Lesiba Moshoeu of Orlando Pirates and Mongezi Joel ‘Ace’ Mnini of Moroka Swallows.
Now, it’s also home to a promising fashion designer.
The small town, with a rough population of 44,000, is where self-taught South African designer Zamaswazi Nkosi crafts his creations for the city’s catwalks.
Nkosi greets us by the corrugated gates of the entrance to his compound dressed in a blue golf shirt featuring an African print pattern – the same shirt he showcased at the South African Fashion Week (SAFW) Spring/Summer 2017. His pants complement the look, along with blue loafers and a white fedora.
Ushering us in, he politely offers to carry some of our equipment. The genial, soft-spoken Nkosi then shows us around.
His workspace, which was once a garage, is attached to his bedroom. Clothes hang on a rack next to the door. Two sewing machines sit at the corner of the room with fabric, needles and thread neatly stacked beside them. Next to them is a table where he irons his garments. You can tell he is a one-man army.
The wall on the opposite side of the room is filled with a collage of photographs, newspaper clippings and awards. A headline from The Citizen reads: “A daring designer”.
“My love for fashion started the day I had no clothes to wear,” Nkosi opens.
Growing up with a single mother and as one of six siblings, he was forced to improve his circumstances at home. He developed the art of restoration.
“It started with reviving the old to new. Sometimes I would take my sisters’ clothes and redo them so that I could have something to wear,” he says.
Little did he know at the time his innovations would one day be part of the fabric of high fashion in South Africa.
Nkosi began by sewing clothes using his mother’s old sewing machine. From there, he would piece together fabric lying around the house.
“I took my mother’s tablecloth, I stole it actually,” he admits.
Nkosi then crafted the tablecloth with a shirt of his to create an entirely new piece. He enjoyed reinventing things and it’s evident in the clothes he designs and puts together today.
However, Nkosi wasn’t always into fashion. On the wall with the photos, are also the trophies and medals he has won, not for fashion, but for football.
They all date back to the time Nkosi was into soccer. As a teenager, he was a midfielder.
“I was called ‘Teko’ from Teko Modise,” he says.
He imagined becoming a world-class football player in his 20s limbering up preparing for soccer war in the stadiums.
But that dream was shattered when an injury changed the course of his life forever.
This happened when he was 16, playing football in Soweto.
“I got tackled from behind. That was when my knee twisted,” he says.
He didn’t see a doctor, and continued to play. Only now does he regret not going for treatment.
“I thought that maybe if I felt better I could play. Only to find out that I was damaging it and it became worse. Then there was a point where I realized it was no longer working.”
Nkosi was devastated that he may never get the chance to play football again.
He was grieving the loss of his first love not knowing he would find something he would enjoy doing, again.
His sister consoled him and encouraged him to start something new. That’s when he did some serious soul-searching. After weighing his pros and cons, he started thinking of himself as a fashion designer.
“Being a fashion designer, it’s somewhat like a calling. Because I didn’t just wake up and decide to be one or be inspired by someone,” he says.
Fashion taking over his life came as some sort of divine intervention. He says he has never looked back since.
He accepted this calling and hosted fashion shows within his community, in Zola. It seemed the needle – in more ways than one – was turning in his favor.
His first show had only 10 people attending, but that did not discourage him.
Nkosi then attended a SAFW event with the hope he could one day showcase his work on the platform. He watched closely the designs of one of his favorite South African designers, David Tlale, on the runway.
“I told myself ‘no man, I can do this’.”
There was just one hurdle. He had no academic qualifications for the job.
“On big platforms like SAFW they normally require fashion qualifications like a diploma or anything that relates to fashion. So, as Zamaswazi, I had nothing on paper. I only had skill,” he says.
After countless rejections, he one day garnered the courage to speak to the founder of SAFW, Lucilla Booyzen. A nervous but determined 24-year-old Nkosi walked up to her after one of the shows.
Booyzen told Nkosi to do what he had already done before. “Just apply,” she said.
But Nkosi was not having it. The young boy from the township was determined.
“I was like, ‘no if you need paper [qualifications] and I’m dressing my own clothes and it’s proper, why can’t you let me showcase’?”
She then told him to come to her office and talk about opportunities. And the rest was history.
He had to prepare a proposal and showcase his work to a number of top fashionistas. It included creating a fashion portfolio, storyboard and designs of his pieces.
“It took me two weeks to even know what ‘portfolio’ is. That’s how I learned,” says Nkosi.
He was then shortlisted for the ‘scouting menswear collection’ in association with GQ magazine in 2015.
The platform brought his designs to life and Nkosi got his first break at SAFW.
Nkosi has showcased his designs at SAFW events, designing clothes for men that are modern with an African twist. His signature is the hemmed-in African print on to modern clothing. Much like the shirt he is wearing at this interview.
Nkosi relates this to his heritage and humble beginnings that forced him to merge different kinds of material into one. Unlike some of the other designers at sought-after fashion showcases such as SAFW, Nkosi says he designs and sews his clothes himself.
In his hometown Soweto, his friends and neighbors still can’t believe the boy who once played soccer swapped the ball for a sewing machine.
After the interview, he courteously helps us again to carry out our equipment.
Parked outside his house is his red vintage Beetle car with the word ‘Zamaswazi’ engraved on it. He bought the car last year.
Even though the engine doesn’t run he says he plans to work on it so he can do the six-hour drive to attend the annual Durban July.
The trendy man in the white fedora riding a red vintage car through the scenic green landscapes of South Africa to attend a premium horseracing event – it’s a pretty picture indeed.