Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, president of a country called Fashion
I don’t think Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe could have orchestrated a more inspired lunch venue if she had tried.
We are sitting under an architectural marvel, a dome that is as delicate and all-enveloping as an embroidered lace cloth. It is a heart-soaring rendition of Arab geometry in sublime conversation with the elements of light, air, desert and sea.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, is considered one of the wonders of contemporary architecture and seeks to underscore a global outlook through a very local medium.
This is a bricks-and-mortar rendition of an intercultural conversation and rapprochement. A place where humans in all our diversity can really meet and find commonality.
It is an ideal that feels urgent and pressing on International Women’s Day at the Forbes 30/50 conference, which has brought high-flying inspirational women from around the world together, including a former mayor from Afghanistan and a tech start-up CEO from Ukraine.
Dr P, as everyone on her expansive team calls her, seems to be in her natural habitat — a citizen of the world with a remarkable diplomatic facility.
She chats with everyone in the same charming self-deprecating tone, and tucks with innate grace into the conference salad lunch served in super cute eco-disposable containers that we hold on our laps.
Just as comfortable here as I imagine she would be at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“This is amazing,” she comments. “I like being outside, this indoors-outdoors space is phenomenal.”
Why are we actually here, I finally ask her? I mean we could have just as easily had lunch in Joburg.
“When we started at AFI [African Fashion International, a globally affiliated enterprise that champions African creatives] we wanted to bring African brands, African designers to a global audience, for them to understand and appreciate African fashion, our boldness, our colours. To be considered as part of the global fashion industry, especially because it is such a big industry in financial terms.
We wanted to bring African brands, African designers to a global audiencePrecious Moloi-Motsepe
“If it was a country it would be the seventh biggest in terms of its economy. It employs millions of people, particularly women. We started with our retail initiatives, putting fashion events alongside the pop-up stores and before the pandemic we went into e-commerce.
"We have just launched our app. We felt it was the way to reach more people. So why we are here today is because we have also identified niche market partnerships as a strategic priority that we could leverage.
“We have known Forbes for more than 10 years. We have been attending events, giving awards on the philanthropic side. So when they were coming to Abu Dhabi, particularly to celebrate women on International Women’s Day, we wanted to bring the fun element, the fashion element, alongside the serious discussions.”
I am sure she gets asked this a lot, but why the pivot to fashion? She is a medical doctor, the chancellor at the University of Cape Town ... what is it about fashion that inspires her?
“When I was a young girl growing up in Soweto, my mother was a nursing sister and she was a working mom, so I was brought up really by my grandmother. I used to admire how she dressed.
"You know our grandmothers would wear shweshwe tunics very much like wraparound dresses over their clothes. They dressed very beautifully. I was inspired by my neighbours.
“Soweto is a very diverse community, we could have an Ndebele person, with Zulu neighbours. I grew up in Tladi very deep in Soweto, which is why I speak all 11 languages. I am learning French now.
"I loved what my grandmother was wearing, especially when we went to church — I admired it. But then as I grew up and started travelling I realised I was not seeing much of the African aesthetic that I was so used to.
“I remember being at a Gucci show when Tom Ford was the designer and he had a collection that showcased kings and queens — and it was so beautiful and ornate and I remember thinking some of our kings on the African continent look so regal, just like what I was seeing on the catwalk, but we were not represented.
“I think it was when I noticed the lack of diversity on the global platforms and it coincided with the time the world was beginning to notice the dearth of diversity, in models, designers.
“That is when we started AFI to create a platform and an ecosystem working with designers from across the continent — a pan-African vision. They say fashion is a bold political statement and it needs to be reinforced.
“Now with Patrice [her husband Patrice Motsepe], because he is the president of CAF [Confederation of African Football] I have had the opportunity to travel the continent with him to more than 20 countries.
“It is an opportunity I would never have had before. And everywhere I go I meet with designers on the ground and I hear their stories. It is incredible that what you will find in Cote d’Ivoire, you will find in Benin, you will find the same in Rwanda — it is wonderful to see the commonalities. You realise how we are really one.
I remember thinking some of our kings on the African continent look so regal, just like what I was seeing on the catwalk, but we were not represented
“But I have not really left the medical world. Through the foundation I am involved with multiple projects like Cansa [Cancer Association of SA], mental health, GBV [gender-based violence] support centres.
“When I was a doctor I realised that health had an economic barrier to it. The wealthy could afford health care that the poor could not. I had the first women’s health practice in Rivonia after working in the public sector for a long time. I served a lot of women across the board — all races, religions, teenagers to menopause. But the economic disparity became so clear.
“So when I thought of going into business, I looked at the sector that employed a lot of women, I went into the sector because I know that more than the economic benefits there would be a huge difference we could make in women’s lives. Plus I love all things beautiful.”
How do you stay positive and engaged at a time when the world feels precarious and scary?
“People will say why is this relevant, people are dying. We have to keep a perspective of hope. I was walking around the Louvre today and the palace yesterday and talking to women about the showcase.
“They were so excited, they want to see that fashion showcase. It is escapism, but it is also knowing that you are not just giving a handout, you are supporting people who have put their energy, their efforts and skills into producing. By supporting them you are supporting a broader community. It is not charity, it is art.”
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