Growing up, Khothatso Laurence Tsotetsi didn’t play with the boys; he was obsessed with sewing instead, and is now dressing up supermodels for the fashion runways of the world.
Khothatso Laurence Tsotetsi’s office in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria, is a profusion of pink – a beaded pink flamingo stands tall on his desk that’s draped in a pink table cloth; also here are grey couches with pink patterns and a pink mat adorning the floor.
His spacious studio with multiple rooms is just the setting for our photoshoot and interview.
Millennial fashion designer Tsotetsi has made a name for himself in South Africa’s fashion industry with his sophisticated, elegant pieces for women particular about their look, and has had his creations showcased at a number of fashion weeks.
Born in Soweto, a township in the southwest of Johannesburg, in 1988, just before the apartheid era ended in South Africa, Tsotetsi moved around a lot as a child.
“My father was a politician, that’s why we moved from one place to another. We moved from Soweto to the Free State [a province in South Africa]; we lived in the Vaal for some time until I eventually moved to Pretoria in 2009, and since then I’ve been practicing from here.”
As a young boy, he says, his behaviour was peculiar compared to other boys his age. Where they played football, he played with fabric.
He was interested in dress designing and started with some needlework; all this evolved in high school when he figured out that designing was what he wanted to pursue. In tertiary school, Tsotetsi started showcasing at fashion weeks every season.
After graduating with a BTech degree in 2012, and with a National Diploma in Fashion in 2013 from the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), he lectured on construction, patterns and creative design at TUT for a few years.
By then, he was already involved in the eponymous business he had started in 2012. Tsotetsi KL, his brand, was doing well.
“2012 was when I got my big break at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Johannesburg when African Fashion International (AFI) brought Alek Wek to walk for my show; from there, I did Black Fashion Week Paris,” he recalls.
This meant hard work, sacrifices and the relentless pursuit of his passion.
As an assistant, Tsotetsi packed scraps of fabric for South African fashion mogul Clive Rundle for six weeks, coordinating scraps by color and fabric. Tsotetsi knows it as Rundle’s aesthetic. Rundle has sold womenswear for decades and showcased his work on ramps across the world.
“I taught art and design at a high school in the Vaal for a month and on the weekends, I would work at Clive Rundle’s; after that month, I worked permanently every day at his Johannesburg studio in the [central] business district. That’s when I started helping with the clothing and the shows, and then I worked with David Tlale in 2014 under a mentorship program, the AFI Next Generation,” says Tsotetsi.
The young designer had to shadow famed South African designer Tlale for three months before Tlale’s first New York Fashion Week show.
From both designers, Tsotetsi learned a lot and infused it with his own method, understanding the business side of fashion and not just the creative aspects. He developed a clientele base and streamlined his business into what it is today.
Over the years, he has learned a great deal and gained a lot of experience in the industry, showcasing his creations yet constantly questioning himself about what is more important: money, fame or social media likes.
“Still, why showcase,” he asks.
“As soon as it’s a company, it’s an entity with different principles: human resources, finance, graphics, photography and all of that, but as a small business, you cannot afford those services, you have to step in as the owner and play those different roles, ask for favors, manipulate people, lie, and do all of those things. So for you to be able to maintain the business, you need to be making money and paying staff. Those are the dynamics that have been in place from 2014 until 2018.”
In the eyes of the young creative designer, growth meant making money.
Among many other rich and famous names, Tsotetsi has dressed the likes of Hulisani Ravele, a radio personality and former YoTV presenter; Precious Moloi-Motsepe, a fashion entrepreneur and philanthropist, who runs the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week; and Rorisang Thandekiso, a South African actress, presenter and musician.
“I know Khothatso from high school, so he’s been making me stuff since but my real first was my first SAMAs [South African Music Awards] in 2010, it was amazing and futuristic. This year, I’m at the SAMAs in June doing the red carpet and presenting an award; he’ll be dressing me for both. We did the SAFTAs [South African Film and Television Awards] together. That dress took everybody by storm, and everybody absolutely loved it. It was just beautiful to look at people respond to it,” says Thandekiso.
Tsotetsi KL caters for a market that is distinctively chic and sophisticated.
“It is women that are of a peculiar kind who want to portray classiness in an elegant way. They want to stand out, they have exaggerated style and thoughts and they are one in zero,” says Tsotetsi.
The brand does bespoke and high-end garments and is currently working with Luminance, a fashion and lifestyle concept store present in the upscale Hyde Park Corner mall in north Johannesburg.
The garments seen in the photos are from the 2014 fashion weeks from different seasons. Tsotetsi’s favorite is a ruffle dress.
“It was a highly publicised look from the SAMAs’ [edition] 21. It was a dress that Kelly Khumalo [South African singer, actress and dancer] wore and it was one of its kind at the time; it was bigger than what it is in the image. It was 180 meters before it was tailored. It is one iconic look that we photographed for the feature,” he says.
Tsotetsi KL will be turning six years old in August and is slated to have a spectacular fashion show for Women’s Month, observed in South Africa every year that month. Tsotetsi employs four permanent staff and three interns. They are all hard at work in his studio preparing the next line.
For the lad from Soweto obsessed with needlework, he has his work cut out for him.