David Tlale channels his grief into creating a phenomenal fashion show

The acclaimed designer showed 76 looks - one to mark each year of his late mother’s life - at the recent African Fashion International Joburg Fashion Week

20 October 2019 - 00:00
The finale of the David Tlale show at African Fashion International Joburg Fashion Week.
The finale of the David Tlale show at African Fashion International Joburg Fashion Week.
Image: African Fashion International

David Tlale is authoritatively rustling 76 models and a large production team into a semi- circle at African Fashion International (AFI) Joburg Fashion Week.

Minutes before his show begins he gathers his flock - a glamour of otherworldly beauties and all the attendant handmaidens of fashion, makeup and hair artists, production, seamstresses and stylists - and gives thanks.

The prayer centres everyone in a moment of quiet contemplation before they step out into the lights, the music, the action: "Tonight, we honour Joyce."

If you thought the mood backstage at a David Tlale fashion show would be all frenetic last-minute adjustments, flying powder puffs and high drama, you would be wrong. Tonight there is hushed anticipation and a genteel buzz - this is a professional outfit in full flight.

Everything is as it should be, weeks of meticulous, painstaking hard labour distilled into 76 looks celebrating the rich 76 years of the life of his mother, Joyce Tlale, who died peacefully in her sleep earlier this year.

To come to terms with his profound loss, David has done what he does best, and the only thing that comes naturally: he is telling her story through his medium, fashion.

David Tlale's take on traditional Tsonga xibelani.
David Tlale's take on traditional Tsonga xibelani.
Image: African Fashion International
David Tlale showed wave upon wave of sublime black dresses at AFI Joburg Fashion Week.
David Tlale showed wave upon wave of sublime black dresses at AFI Joburg Fashion Week.
Image: African Fashion International

He steps out with his entire immediate family - his three siblings, his nieces and nephews united on the catwalk, all dressed in white. In this simple act, Joyce's work is done. Her family that she sacrificed and worked so hard for, as a domestic worker in the service of others and as a single mother, stand proudly together.

Her customary phrase Kuzolunga mntanami - All will be well, my child - flashes on the screens, a mantra that only a mother's love can make real. And how real that love feels tonight.

Joyce feels real in the magnificent takes on traditional Tsonga xibelani, which David explains take more than 80m of cloth and endless hours of hand-pleating and beading to make. "The heaviness of the pleats is like the making of our lives and hardships, each pleat a testament to her success in raising us."

The heaviness of the pleats is like the making of our lives and hardships, each pleat a testament to my late mother's success in raising us
Designer David Tlale on his take on traditional Tsonga xibelani

Joyce feels real in the intricate detailing of the sublime black dresses that come out in
wave upon wave "like the dark times we are going through" and in the hope of the handprinted blue and yellow fabrics that have an ethereal quality - "she may be gone but her spirit is with us".

The collection is a journey animated by his mother's love. Her desire for him to be an accountant, her realisation that she had a creative spirit on her hands, her unyielding support, her strength, her bi-weekly family meals, her humour - asking to be paid for her stint as his muse in his previous collection - and her innate flamboyance, demanding new outfits for church appearances every week.

I remember watching Joyce run overjoyed onto the stage in 2003 at this very venue at
the Sandton Convention Centre when David won the Elle New Talent competition and launched his spectacular career. This time she is everywhere. Her blessings for David palpable: Sekulungile - everything is fine, now go and conquer the world.


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