Not so long ago, fashion design in Africa went something like this: A tailor sets up shop in the back room of his house; he services the needs of the community’s elite; in between making wedding dresses for local girls and three-piece matric dance suits for the boys, he’s known as the go-to person should your hemline need a bit of adjustment.
Ten years ago, this was fashion designer David Tlale’s reality as he sat alone by the sewing machine in his mother’s house in the township of Vosloorus, in the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa, drawing sketches and making patterns. Nowadays, it is these designs that have helped change the face of fashion in South Africa and the continent.
As Tlale and I sit in the lounge of the upmarket Fire & Ice! hotel in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, for sundowners, it is crystal clear that his vision is far from being a mere pipedream. In the nine years that he has been a professional fashion designer, he has won many awards and accolades; he has become arguably the most famous and recognizable black designer in South Africa with a list of endorsements.
And on the topic of endorsement, his current collaboration with the South African Mint is the talk of the town, owing to reports that the Mint stopped producing money on the day they hosted his fashion show at their Centurion premises during the recent Africa Fashion Week, in October.
So how did he get the money-making machine to come on board with him?
“SA Mint got in contact with me after they attended the fashion show that I held on the Mandela Bridge in May 2011 (the bridge was also closed for this show). They had been supporting a few campaigns on climate change—the awareness and fundraising for it, so they wanted me to bring a fashion element, like an artistic interpretation of the dangers and effects of climate change,” he says.
The Mint had a special coin, worth more than $1,000, struck in his honour for his contribution to the cause.
The Mint was not the only customer. Luxury car manufacturer Volvo also selected Tlale as one of three South African designers—along with Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie and Gert-Johan Coetzee—to help design its cars.
But his biggest coup so far has been Estée Lauder’s Clinique range, for which he designed a limited edition handbag. This resulted in David Tlale branding being splashed across malls and department stores all over South Africa and beyond.
In September 2011, Tlale took a major plunge by opening a store at the high-end Michelangelo Towers in Africa’s economic hub—the mall of Sandton City. Now, at a time of recession when other established designers are selling into major parent companies, mainly for security, this move has raised the proverbial eyebrow among many a fashion and retail expert.
“Three years ago, Woolworths came to me and offered to take my brand on to distribute through their stores. Now after working for so many years to make sure that consumers understood my identity and aesthetic, I decided to decline this offer because I felt that they wanted to wash away much of the detail that makes a David Tlale creation. They wanted to dilute my signature basically, so I decided to wait it out until I felt that my brand was ready to stand on its own two feet in the world of retail,” he says confidently.
Tlale is also known to be open and honest about having faced extreme highs and lows in his journey to becoming a fashion businessman.
“I have seen it all,” he says. “I have gone through times where the business overheads were way more than what was coming in; I have even gone through a time when I thought I needed to get a nine-to-five job to finance the costs of running the label. But that was part of the journey that every entrepreneur goes through.
“People criticize and slate me for choosing the Michelangelo Towers to house the store, but I personally believe that the brand David Tlale calls for an address like that and nothing else. We are a luxury brand and we have to be where all the other luxury brands are, and where the tourists and the moneyed set hang out. And the label is ready,” he adds.
While it remains to be seen just how well the store at the Towers does, over at The Bromwell boutique hotel in Cape Town, where Tlale’s wares are also sold, things appear to be going swimmingly.
“I was so amazed by how well our merchandise is moving at The Bromwell. At this point, customers are calling for us to open a David Tlale branch over in Cape Town, so what I am working on right now—while I watch the progress at my Johannesburg store—is to expand within The Bromwell,” he states.
With prices at the store ranging from anything between R1,200 ($150) for a blouse to R8,000 ($1,000) for an evening dress, how does Tlale handle the general perception that one has to pay a fortune to afford a David Tlale piece, and does that hurt his business in any way?
“I get a lot of that kind of reaction. People generally think that it takes a right arm, a leg and a kidney to afford one of my garments, and that’s not necessarily true,” he says.
Tlale’s deep-pocketed clientele pay more than R25,000 ($3,150) for a custom-made couture piece.
I ask whether Tlale has male clients who allow him to put them in dresses, like he does the male models who walk the ramp for his fashion shows.
“My inspiration for putting men in dresses stems from the eastern culture that I totally embrace. And as a point of correction, those garments people see as ‘dresses’ are actually long kaftans. As an artist, I love pushing the boundaries and reminding people that fashion is art, it’s fantasy, and I do not believe in doing a show that will not give people something to talk about when they leave. I use my shows to tell a story, to give people an experience and to give the media something to chew on,” he says.
As one of the most publicized fashion designers in Africa, it would seem that the media and the press appear mesmerized by Tlale. The reports aren’t always rosy; there is talk of tardiness and “diva tendencies”.
“The problem here is that I am always the last designer to close off a season of Fashion Week. And what normally happens is that everyone before me is already running late, so by the time I’m supposed to come on and wrap things up, it’s glaringly obvious that everything is running two hours late and I get the flak for all of it,” he explains.
Whether or not you subscribe to Tlale’s over-the-top bling aesthetic and price tag, there’s no denying that he has indeed come a long way from the dusty streets of “Voslo”, and is inching closer to realising his dream of changing the face of fashion in Africa.
The David Tlale label is making waves at the respective fashion weeks in Angola, Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique—the rest of the continent awaits to be conquered.
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