Tsholanang Mathibe never let her humble upbringing come in the way of her big dreams designing for the rich and famous in South Africa.
Picture this. Somewhere in Kanana, a rural village in the innards of South Africa’s North West province, a young girl takes a break from a routine day out playing in the fields with her friends, and accidentally leafs through the fashion pages of a glossy magazine, awe-struck by the style and design aesthetics of the big city. And she plans her life in that one moment.
Today, at 29, Tsholanang Mathibe is a fashion entrepreneur and founder of Blackmarble Designs in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, designing for brides and businesswomen, but still recalling that day in the sun when life shone her career path.
“I’ve never seen myself doing anything else from the age of nine,” says Mathibe.
The coronavirus-induced economic downturn in South Africa has no doubt affected her business as well, but it is a good time to reflect on how far she has come, and how much farther she wants to go.
“Lockdown has affected business greatly because most of our clients get garments done to attend special events. With [not many of those events happening], people are sceptical [about] purchasing costumed clothing,” she says.
Mathibe is now fashioning face-masks and recently rented out a wedding gown for a private ceremony.
Her formative years were tough. After high school, she moved to Pretoria for a B.Tech in Fashion Design at the Tshwane University of Technology. It was not easy adjusting to life in the city and the challenges of higher education. She even briefly mulled switching careers to deejaying, but her mother motivated her to stay the course.
“The fashion journey is tough, and the fact that people don’t talk about that side of the industry baffles me, because when I was in high school, I thought it was all glitz and glamor, until I got to varsity.”
When it came to finally starting her own business and choosing a name for her brand, she harked back to her maths classes in school, when her teacher, in discussing numbers, always referred to marbles.
Mathibe used it in conjunction with black, her favorite color, and Blackmarble Designs was born.
The maths teacher had also shown interest in the young creative that Mathibe was and arranged for her to meet with fashion designer, Ephraim Molingoane of Ephymol, a menswear fashion label.
Blackmarble was registered in 2013 when she was still in her final year, and commenced operations in 2014.
“I was helped by the fact that I won an industrial sewing machine for a fashion range I had produced during my third year, when students showcase their work. I won the best innovation award. That helped me start my business.”
In the first year of operation, Mathibe was working out of her aunt’s backroom in Soweto, sleeping alongside her equipment and waking up to work all day or night.
“I spent most of my time in that room doing mostly ready-to-wear garments to showcase and sell at social markets between Johannesburg and Cape Town. A client then referred South Africa’s popular radio deejay, DJ Sabby, to me. He needed an outfit for the J&B MET. That was my first celebrity client,” she recalls.
The following year, she moved back to Pretoria to live with her partner. Business was picking up and she enjoyed making bespoke outfits rather than ready-to-wear. She also started promoting the brand online to reach a wider audience; things were getting better and the business had momentum.
“I am still using my home as my studio, and in 2019, the business got its first bridal client and since then, that was the market we were mostly [focusing] on before the lockdown,” she says.
Her first client for a bridal outfit was Lindiwe Sibiloane, who had seen a matric dance garment that Mathibe had designed.
“I was looking for something very similar to that [matric dance garment]; then I asked her to do a bridal gown, and she did it. I am still happy about it, everyone was raving about that dress; they still are,” says Sibiloane.
Mathibe’s bridal gowns cost upwards of $1,000.
So far, Blackmarble Designs has also dressed FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 alumna such as South African actor Thuso Mbedu and Reabetswe Ngwane, co-founder and MD of Kreamfields, who incidentally, Mathibe has known from primary school.
Mathibe dressed Ngwane for the glamorous Veuve Clicquot Masters Polo social event in 2019.
“I told her I needed a dress. I gave her a brief the week of the event. I sent her a few pictures I had seen on Pinterest. A few days later, the dress was done to the ‘T’ and didn’t need any adjustments, save for a button,” says Ngwane.
Somewhere in Kanana, a young girl must be reading this article now and being suitably inspired, just like Mathibe had been, all those years ago.