Latest posts by Boitumelo Pooe (see all)

#WHOMADEMYCLOTHES | Fashion Revolution Week with Cyril Naicker

Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you get to meet someone who captures your attention in a way beyond the frivolity of the modern era of on-demand instant gratification and throw away culture....

#WHOMADEMYCLOTHES | Fashion Revolution Week with Cyril Naicker

Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you get to meet someone who captures your attention in a way beyond the frivolity of the modern era of on-demand instant gratification and throw away culture....

The conductor | Paul Simon

At the centre of a retail eco system germinating local business in a high-tech environment, Paul Simon isn’t afraid to think big. He lives for the challenge.  Paul Simon has something that’s...

The art of intelligence. Lara Klawikowski | sculpting fashion’s future

“I used to wear my dolls clothes, I’d try to squeeze into my dolls clothes with my Mom’s clothes, everyone’s clothes. Anything that could be wrapped or draped or tied; we have a family friend who used to sew and she used to give us all her little bits of things she’d sewn together to play in. All that creativity; I only have sisters so also a bunch of girls dressing up. I loved barbie clothes. I loved looking at clothes.

December issue: ELI’s golden footprint | Masa Mara

‘So what’s your story?’ I ask Eli in the broadest sense possible, deliberately leaving the question as open as I can. My hope is to present him with an empty canvas, so to speak; a blank piece of fabric on which he can trace the lines of his narrative as he pleases. He is an artist, after all. And his forte – the pulse that animates his work, in fact – is the telling of African stories with brave colours and prints.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting to one of the most real and authentic fashion designers I have come across, Thabo Makhetha. To be honest, I thought I had an idea about where our conversation would go, but I had no idea!

From a young age, fashion was part of Thabo’s DNA. With the support of her parents, Thabo made sure that her fashion dream remained nurtured until it was realised. Raised by engineers for parents, she was, of course, expected to carve her way through her education. At some point, she considered dancing but her mother pushed her towards her long-standing dream of fashion. I really found it so interesting how her parents did not try to sway her away from fashion, but instead, pushed her towards it. As one of my friends once said, “Most parents, especially African parents, believe that you are either a lawyer, doctor, engineer, or a disgrace to the family!” However, that isn’t the case with Thabo; as a fashion designer, she is the pride of her Sotho family and of the South African fashion fraternity.  

That was not always the case though, as the industry did not always love her as much as she loved it. The fashion retail industry shocked Thabo with its copy-and-paste approach. The big South African corporates exposed Thabo to the “dog eat dog” world of fashion, with broken promises and breached contracts, only to offer the same deals to designers overseas who were actually inspired by Thabo’s designs. Fashion Weeks exposed Thabo’s designs to the nation; at that same time, be it backstage or behind the scenes, they failed to see Thabo as a formidable businesswoman or even as a person.

Through all that, eleven years later, she is still standing. What I admire most about Thabo is how she rose above every snub, rudeness, rejection, and ridicule and continued to do what she was, and still is, best at; building a fashion design brand. After everything she has been through and the experience she has gained, she has some pretty good advice for her younger self. The first would be to invest in those legal fees, and know a good, trustworthy lawyer to help navigate the big corporates with their long contracts and big promises. With that in mind, she would also remind her younger herself to never forget the court of public opinion, as it holds the biggest power of persuasion and influence. 

The second piece of advice would be to continue taking ownership as the first creator of her design signature, but she would strongly advise herself to learn to let go, and simply continue as a creative and focus on new concepts. This reminded me of a podcast I listened to, a conversation between two of my favourite thought crushes (or thought leaders), Simon Sinek and Seth Godin. In the podcast called “A bit of optimism with Simon Sinek”, Seth (yes, in my head we are on first name basis) mentioned that scaling is the ability and the willingness to give up ownership, because then the idea spreads faster and can grow bigger than imagined. Honestly, I love the idea of seeing the Sotho blankets throughout the world and designed by different designers, as long as the world continues to reference the Sotho culture, originators and the leaders who introduced the styles to the ramps. But, that’s a discussion for another day.  

Back to Thabo’s advice to her younger self. Thirdly would be to vet the international shows before attending them. Just because a show is overseas doesn’t mean that it is a suitable platform. Research, research, and research them! Lastly, get the right administrative team, especially as a designer travelling to international shows. A team can make or absolutely break you. After Thabo narrated a horror story of an international show she had attended, with the wrong person taking care of her administration and orders, I was sure I would have quit the industry there and then! But Thabo didn’t, she stayed, cleaned up that mess and became stronger. 

Photographer: Natali Field
Model: Ole Morapedi,
O’gorgeous Modeling Agency
Hair and Makeup: Afro Halo
Accessories: Afrigarde, African Eyes, Chimpel

There was a lot of time and energy that had to go towards the business side of things but, according to Thabo, getting caught up in the glamour and appearance was just not worth it. The money and effort spent towards the eluding glam-life showed very little return on investment. In Thabo’s retrospect, the publications that approached them and the publicity they managed in-house, should have been enough. I think, for me, the lesson here is, be strategic with your publicity, stick to what works for your business, and don’t chase the glam at the cost of your business. Thabo’s ability to try a new course, be honest about it, change the course, and admit missteps, is the reason why she has such staying power and will outlive most brands. 

When I asked her whether a conversation about race was necessary in the industry, she said that the most important conversation we needed to have was amongst black people. To be intentional with our purchases and to consciously support our cultures, heritage, and be proud of our identities. One of my favourite things Thabo said was, “As Africans, we are worth our weight in our own cultures and in our own traditions, and there’s no reason why it (our designs) shouldn’t be as modern as the cities we work in.”

Nonetheless, buying black doesn’t start with the purchase, but starts with supporting black designers in becoming scalable. Thabo mentioned three key figures who are great examples of support and not charity. Eugine Drakes was the first person to stock Thabo’s designs in Johannesburg, even though at that point, her boutique specialised in accessories. The second person would be the late Vanessa Leisegang (loved her!), who offered Thabo the opportunity to stock her ranges in The Space, while providing her with a step-by-step guide of all the retail requirements, to ensure her success. Actually looking back, Vanessa was really intentional and key in getting black fashion designers into The Space. Last but not least, Jackie Burger, a formidable media expert who insisted on paying full price for Thabo’s garments, while she openly shared her thoughts on how to improve the designs. It really does take a village, willing to work together, to raise the marginalised and bring them to the forefront, so that they, or we as consumers, can realise their full potential. However, mindsets need to change, approaches need to be adjusted and we need to interrogate our own racist and prejudice notions about black designers, and that’s directed to all races, and even myself.

If you forget everything about this article, please remember these words from Thabo, “Know your ability and what it’s worth; if someone tells you it’s not worth it, move on to the next person. Stay in your lane. Find your 10 to build your 100 to get to your 1000 customers to focus on, because even R100 from 1000 customers (per month) is something to build a small business on! Find a balance between resting and working. In resting, there is a sense of reflection about your brand, and finally take care of your emotional and spiritual being, as well as your family structure”. 

My personal hopes for everyone who has taken the time to read this article is to find what Thabo found in fashion, that thing that gets you excited and going, that you absolutely love and never give up on.  

Follow Thabo Makhetha

Cover Image
Photographer: Tando Guzana
Hair: Black Hair Organics
Location: Afriski Resort Lesotho
Henry Mohlalisi
Mamo Makhele
Rethabile T’sosane

Latest posts by Boitumelo Pooe (see all)

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