David Tlale's reality show was a serious attempt to 'pay it forward'

Paula Andropoulous chats to the fashion icon about how he's empowering SA's next generation of designers

01 October 2017 - 00:00 By Paula Andropoulos
David Tlale.
David Tlale.
Image: Alon Skuy

A glass of water, please," David Tlale bellows, setting in motion a radius of well-meaning stewards who all but stumble over one another to get to a jug. A large, cucumber-laden glass is dispatched at a leisurely pace, before the commanding presence finally sits down to be photographed.

The question I asked him a moment before stays poised precariously midair, uncertain, like me, if this reception amounts to a dismissal.

But I left my brief foray into the peculiarly courtly world of David Tlale with the distinct impression that there is, fundamentally, something benign about the designer-king, in spite of the - sometimes Machiavellian - theatrics that festoon his persona.

He is quick to laugh, loudly and with gusto. He meets the eyes of the people with whom he interacts, peppers his demands with benedictions, and appears to elicit not only respect, but also genuine affection from the cohort of delegates and apostles around him.

There is something about Tlale that I find deeply evocative of F Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. Tlale is a man almost entirely of his own making, a man in thrall to the beautiful and the ideal; but, unlike the fictional counterpart I have ascribed to him, he is profoundly aware of the gruelling reality behind the glamorous veneer he's engineered.

In interviews, and over the course of his new reality-television show, The Intern by David Tlale, the 42-year-old doggedly asserts that fashion, for all its effete, artistic connotations, "is not for sissies".

There is something oddly vulnerable, given his superficially unshakeable self-regard, about his untrammelled desire to relate the lonely and arduous nature of his ascent to success. He wants the world to register that which he summarily describes as "the hard work, the mistakes, the sleepless nights".

It's almost as if, for a moment, he cares what anybody thinks, in spite of himself. But the moment is short-lived: Tlale the Unassailable reassumes his role, and "sorry, but fuck everybody else" are his parting words to an imagined corpus of critics.

Beyond its obvious appeal as an extension of his brand - and as a heretofore untapped cache of ratings for the SABC - The Intern by David Tlale seems to be a serious attempt on the designer's part to "pay it forward": to empower a new generation of South African designers to navigate the challenges that Tlale once had to manoeuvre solo.

"When I was building my brand, nobody fostered me, nobody mentored me," he recalls, without bitterness. "I had to fall, and stand up, and really make it great. Ultimately, the show is here to say: can we have a better generation of designers, designers introduced to the business of fashion properly?"

WATCH the promo for Episode 2 of The Intern by David Tlale

Tlale was born in the township of Vosloorus in Gauteng. His mother, Joyce Tlale, raised David and his three siblings alone. Beyond a vague recollection that he enjoyed dressing his sisters' Barbies, he had - or has divulged - no premonitions about his affinity for fashion.

When he embarked on a degree in internal auditing (the title alone is soporific) at Tshwane University of Technology, it soon became apparent that his talents lay elsewhere. He enrolled at the Vaal Triangle Technikon to study fashion, and the rest is not so much history as it is mythology, lost in the legend that Tlale has erected around and about himself, and which is, arguably, as integral to the David Tlale label as the clothing itself.