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Sunday Times STLive By Shanthini Naidoo Pictures: Wesley Poon, 2012-03-04

DAVID AND GOLIATH

DAVID Tlale sits on his throne, contemplating the day ahead. This throne is a tall black chair with elaborate gold trim and carved lion heads, the apex spreading like a crown above his trendy hairdo.

He commissioned it, but not because he believes he is an aristocrat.

To some he may be fashion royalty - a magazine recently called him a "crowned king" - but he does not seem to think of himself that way. It seems more a symbol of aspiration, for respect, excess, success.

Truth is, he is a terribly hard worker and spends long hours in that seat. At one point, he starts to nod off mid-sentence thanks to a pre-dawn wake-up. And he does not seem to take time to eat.

"We have a lot going on right now," he says, brushing his diary with a hand dressed in a huge oval ring and a chunky S&M-style bracelet.

In his soft, slow, pensive voice, Tlale always refers to himself as "we" or "the brand".

The "we" may include his team, who are busy at a temporary studio in Braamfontein, on the top floor of the Heerengracht Building.

The space irritates him because it is cramped, what with fitting in the throne, its giant matching mirror into which clients twirl his creations, plus the team. But it has to do for now.

The country's fashion journalists, his fans and foes wait to see "what David will do" at Joburg fashion week this Friday.

When I saw him he was preparing for a showing at the South African consulate in New York on February 14, around their prestigious fashion week.

Guests saw an installation of his latest line on mannequins, the heads wrapped in his scarves. It was well received, according to fashion literati.

South African-born Yolanda Sangweni, who is Essence magazine's New York-based online editor, said the turnout was "peppered with expats, Afropolitans from all over the continent and ... a few NYC fashion editors.

"It's a great idea to let the world know we [South Africans] are here. And the NYC fashion crowd would appreciate his style. He wore a floor-length black kaftan for the showing. It was all very goth: André Leon Talley meets Karl Lagerfeld."

Good news for Tlale. While he is regarded as one of SA's most successful local designers, he is hoping to create an international footprint, starting with the Big Apple. It is a huge task.

Another guest, actress Tselane Tambo, said: "There were some fabulous pieces. People were genuinely impressed. I'm on my way home with a friend who has already made arrangements to meet David.

"This was a great start for him. There is a gap here for South African design to do well."

Tlale said: "It was amazing, people wanted to buy off the exhibition. The media reaction was really positive, coming from the difficult New Yorkers. We've done something good for the brand."

Now the spotlight is on the show at Hyde Park shopping centre later this week.

Everyone is guessing, because Tlale always makes a statement. He previously dressed models as living artworks at Joburg's Circa gallery. He once brought a philharmonic orchestra to accompany his show, and once had the South African mint closed down for two days so that coins stamped with an image of his face could be scattered as confetti.

And then there was the bridge.

Last year, Tlale turned the Nelson Mandela bridge into a catwalk. He kept the audience waiting for two hours, but it was a spectacle complete with fireworks at the end. People were aghast, impressed, thrilled, depending who you ask.

The details of the show this week are a surprise and he swears us to secrecy.

But he shares that the themes will be "40s and 50s", incorporating "African chic that has global appeal", whatever that means.

While fashion week and the New York exhibition promise great exposure, it all costs money. Running the fashion operation itself is expensive, and seems to support one project after the next, in the name of growing "the brand" and bringing in new clients.

Elle magazine fashion editor Poppy Evans says there are few truly successful local designers. And even successful ones are not excessively wealthy in South Africa, where designer clothing is a luxury.

"Tlale is an exception partly because he has celebrity status, and he is really good. We do not have a sophisticated fashion market here. Consumers are not educated in local fashion and it is not as accessible as it should be. Designers have to make a lot more effort to get people to wear their clothing regularly."

And Tlale knows this. "My day starts at 6am - not wake-up time, start time."

He is dressed in a black cotton kurta and jeans, brown shoes in shiny crocodile skin. The shoes' long toes touch, and he temples his fingers. "My journey over 10 years has been in building blocks. As a designer, you must show innovation, sustainability, work consistently. You can't go away and re-emerge at fashion week every year."

There is also the difficulty of having three different local fashion weeks (AFI's Joburg fashion week; the inaugural SA Fashion Week and Cape Town Fashion week).

Teaming up with AFI was a business choice that he says catapulted his career. The sponsor, Mercedes-Benz, is the same for the big fashion weeks such as New York and London.

"I don't like getting into the debate of which fashion week is best. We should have just one, like all the big cities. I was born at SA Fashion Week and I loved it. But I had to think of a way to get more exposure, and AFI was it."

On Tlale's diary for the day is a visit from flamboyant friend and creative artist Somizi Mhlongo, who wanted to discuss his outfit for the J&B Met: "Something simple, I couldn't get out of the limo last time." He wore white cutwork pants and a vest made of several chickens' worth of feathers, I saw afterwards.

Tlale has several brand ambassadors, including Mhlongo, Simphiwe Dana, Sonia Booth and Idols runner-up Sindi Nene, whom he dresses for big events.

Later in the day, acclaimed model scout and show producer Jan Malan wants to discuss the upcoming show. An AFI representative comes to talk about the "looks" he will present and borrows a dress for the New York fashion week installation.

The bread and butter, though, comes from regular people, the moneyed unknowns, such as his next appointment. A 30-something parliamentarian and first-time client asks for a "bright yet classy" outfit for the State of the Nation event, saying he likes purples, blues and reds. Tlale sketches, talks bow-ties or cravats and arranges a fitting.

Clients want his direction and decisions, as Tlale's next appointment also reveals. They are a Land Rover-driving businesswoman and her two daughters, regular clients who want outfits for a 21st. He greets them warmly.

The chubbier of the girls is planning a rooftop event for her birthday, with an afterparty "somewhere trendy". "But I'm confused. I want a polo theme, maybe. A long dress?"

"You're going to dance the whole night in a long dress? What about a tutu with a fitted halterneck, leather maybe?" suggests Tlale.

She mentions colour-blocking.

He snorts. "No. Why? Please. Everyone will be colour-blocking." He does not follow trends too closely. "Too bright will be kitsch. What about black and white?"

In a rare loud and commanding voice, he asks an assistant to bring a tulle tutu, cream dipped in black, and drapes it on the girl. She twirls in front of the giant mirror.

"Think hectic red earrings and a neck piece, and a red bag obviously," he says.

Her mom wants a simple dress, with her arms covered, similar to someone's Golden Globes frock. She points it out on her iPad. The elder daughter asks for "something Grecian". From his three rough sketches (30 seconds each), the pattern maker will fill in the technical details before the dresses are cut and stitched together. There are different teams to facilitate each step of the process.

Depending on the detail, the dresses will cost about R7000 apiece, as does the parliamentarian's suit, and the matric dance outfits that parents save up for.

The next time we meet, Tlale is shopping for fabric. We visit the Oriental Plaza, where shop owners and workers greet him. "I am here three times a week, this - and a wholesaler in the CBD - is where you get the best fabric in South Africa."

He has two favourite shops, one for suiting and one for dress fabrics. The Muslim fabric merchants bring out their best chartreuse for a man's suit, paisleys and Egyptian cotton.

Later, we walk from his studio "to look at a space", possible new premises. En route, students from nearby creative schools whisper as he walks past, some daring to say his name out loud, with awe. He smiles at them but tries to avoid the larger groups.

The new space is a palatial home at a corner of a quiet street in Braamfontein, two storeys of old Johannesburg with pressed-steel ceilings, brass light switches and chandeliers. He hops off the carpeted staircase, landing on both feet, taking it all in. He loves that he can see the bridge and that it has a shower for those long work nights. (He later says he decided against the building. "It is beautiful, but too expensive. I am not working to pay rent." He waves it out of his mind with a swish of an arm.)

Tlale is known to be a regular churchgoer, and once controversially invited a pastor to bless the glam opening of a new store. He loves his mother, whom he says has come to terms with him wanting to "make clothes".

He lives in Parktown North, but grew up in Vosloorus on the East Rand. He won't talk about a partner. He believes in long-term relationships and has worn the oval ring on his left hand for three years. But he is never "seen with the same woman or man" because he wants to keep his privacy. He has a handful of "pure" friends.

After considering an "honorable" teaching career, he worked at a salon in his teens, dabbled in flower arrangement and abandoned an auditing degree after eight months. The bean-counting did help, though.

"Little did I know how much accounting I would need as a business skill. It is amazing how much calculation you do in design, from buying fabric to calculating mark-ups."

But he settled on studying fashion, and went on to lecture in the subject. "All we grew up with was this: go study, find a job, get married and have kids. I felt terrible that my mom spent money on my education and she was not happy with me dropping out after her sacrifices. The whole family was upset, especially when I said I wanted to study design. The community had this attitude of 'Who do you think you are? Are you going to make clothes?' But on the first day in class, I knew this was for me," he said.

In 2003, he had to choose whether to continue lecturing, or working in the real world. He leapt, and won the Elle new talent award in his first year of designing. He has a small international client base, people who have read about him, or heard about the bridge show. He has endorsements from Volvo, BlackBerry and Clinique. As of April, funky retailer, Legit, will stock the "Van Der Tlale" budget range.

Yet he does not compare himself with other leading designers, and does not have a mentor. He sets his own goals and competes with himself.

In New York he will compete with the biggest labels in the world, but he is trying to move beyond the boundaries and success of Africa: " [New York] is where the spending power is. It is nearly impossible to break in there, but I am going to try."

He has had failures . "There have been many upsets. Brides didn't like their dresses and there were well-known people who went to the press . I am not scared to say I have disappointed people. But I have had more successes than failures, and that's why I'm here today."

But is he wealthy after all this time and effort?

He laughs; "I support a dedicated staff, the business is secure and I do not compromise on quality for quantity. People know where to find me. That's what it's all about. We are still growing and everything happens with timing. I think only now does my mom realise that I don't just make clothes, that this is a career."

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg 2012 is on from March 7 to 10 at Hyde Park Corner Rooftop.