Visionary opens SA's first fashion-skills academy in KZN township

Founder Fezile Mdletshe believes that sustainable fashion is about more than eco-friendly textiles and recycling — it's about skills development

12 May 2019 - 00:08 By Zodwa Kumalo
Fezile Mdletshe believes that being a pattern-maker and cutter is just as important as being a designer.
Fezile Mdletshe believes that being a pattern-maker and cutter is just as important as being a designer.
Image: Supplied

The people who were working in our once-thriving clothing manufacturing industry two decades ago have retired or died, leaving a gaping skills and knowledge gap. Young people have no clue what happens in terms of production in fashion. They all want to be star designers like the Palesas and Davids, but not everyone can be a star designer.

"Nobody is telling the black child you can be a pattern-maker, cutter; you can be a grader, machinist. It is still a respectable job," says Fezile Mdletshe, creative design and graphic design lecturer at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), who established the Fezile Fashion Skills Academy this year to bridge this gap.

SUSTAINABLE FASHION RELIES ON SKILLS DEVELOPMENT

In April, Swedish retailer H&M hosted the Sustainable Fashion Africa Summit — an African first — inviting editors, journalists, and influencers to engage with H&M representatives and a panel of fashion industry players on the impact of fashion production on the environment and society.

Mdletshe was one of these expert panellists; she believes sustainability in fashion goes beyond eco-friendly textiles and recycling but includes people, skills and development.

Acknowledging H&M as being the first international retailer to celebrate "who we are" by bringing a range of Palesa Mokubung's Mantsho into its local and international stores, she stressed the importance of ethical fashion.

"The clothing has to be produced here too — from the textiles to the beading. Everyone is saying produce local, but the truth is, do we even have capacity? Are we ready?" she asks.

With a Masters in Fashion, (currently a PhD candidate) and a strong background in retail — she worked as a fashion buyer for Mr Price and Edcon among others — Mdletshe was best skilled and experienced to create the academy, which offers courses in applied design, garment construction and technology; pattern skills and design; and fashion coaching and mentoring.

Mdletshe exhausted all her funds setting up the academy, buying equipment and hiring staff to meet the requirements for various accreditation, and had to devise a way of generating income to maintain the school.

Currently there are three four-month masterclasses on offer: in fashion design, sewing and pattern-making. The masterclasses cost R3,200 but the ultimate goal of the academy is to be able to offer fully subsidised learnerships for people in and around KwaMashu.

FREE AND ACCESSIBLE EDUCATION

As one of three siblings raised by a single mom (her father was in prison), Mdletshe says it was a struggle growing up in the Empangeni-Ngwelezane township. Designing and making clothes for people in the neighbourhood was a creative outlet.

"We would often go to bed hungry," she says, "and I was ridiculed and bullied by the kids at school because my packed lunch would be pap and tripe. They all had neat sandwiches and chips and tuckshop money. So I ended up eating my lunch in the school toilet."

The only reason she could afford to be at Empangeni High School was because her grandfather paid for their education. Without that support, which many don't have, Mdletshe knows she would not be where she is today. It is why she is a passionate advocate for free and accessible education, particularly in townships.

With five registered students graduating at the end of June, it's the first accredited fashion college based in the township and boasts six national and internationally recognised FP&M (The Fibre Processing and Manufacturing) Seta and SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) qualifications.

After leaving her job at Edcon because she wanted an opportunity to give back, she went back to her grandparents' hometown of eNdluline in Mandini, to work with the women in the rural community. She trained them in pattern-making, improving their sewing skills and business processes.

Government offices heard about the work she was doing and procured her services, under the Fezile Mdletshe Fashion Agency, which she registered shortly after, to go into rural KwaZulu-Natal and upskill dressmakers who don't have the necessary skills or qualifications.

Among other projects, Mdletshe has been a mentor on BET Africa's reality show Made in Africa, mentored emerging designers through the KwaZulu-Natal Fashion Council and coached designers who have gone on to supply clothing to retailer The Space.

Last year, with the support of the department of arts and culture, she and her agency coached and facilitated Sandile Duke Mngadi of Clothe Your Soul, and Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee to get runway-ready for the Lagos Fashion Week in Nigeria.

With plans to focus on building up the academy and acquiring funding, Mdletshe's long journey is only just beginning.

The plan is not to train students and send them out on their own. Mdletshe has a more sustainable model. Funding will keep them within the academy and the agency for five years. After training they will be offered specialisation in fashion design, entrepreneurship and clothing production. That will be followed by an incubation stage through the agency where they will operate as businesses and be coached further.

"Once we see readiness, they will be internally assisted to set up at premises for business and continue to operate. In turn, this framework of proper training and incubation will begin to produce pattern-makers, authentic SA designers and garment technologists," says Mdletshe.

"Somebody was required to tell young people you are needed within the value chain of fashion."


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