Sublimely styled survival: designer David Tlale has had an epiphany

The famed designer realised he needed to change course if his eponymous fashion label was going to survive the Covid-19 pandemic

19 September 2021 - 00:00
Fashion designer David Tlale at Tashas in Hyde Park Corner, Johannesburg.
Fashion designer David Tlale at Tashas in Hyde Park Corner, Johannesburg.
Image: Alon Skuy

David Tlale has had what I would call an epiphany.

Yes, there is the spiritual aspect to it. At some stage during the lockdown this became apparent from the daily morning prayer ritual that he live-streamed. But it also became manifest in his more prosaic day-to-day life. He needed to change course if his eponymous fashion label was going to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

I meet him a few days ahead of his spring/summer collection, which is showcasing for a select few at Boschendal wine estate in the Western Cape.

Renowned fashion designer, David Tlale, unveiled his spring/summer 2021/22 collection at the Boschendal Wine Farm, outside Franschhoek in the Western Cape.
Renowned fashion designer, David Tlale, unveiled his spring/summer 2021/22 collection at the Boschendal Wine Farm, outside Franschhoek in the Western Cape.
Image: Esa Alexander

We meet at the newly revamped Tashas cafe in Hyde Park - it seems like a good place to discuss his entrepreneurial spirit and new beginnings given the Tashas global success story and the spring/summer inspo of the new look.

Floral fabrics, striped summer canvas draped from the roof, a gigantic crocque-en-bouche tower, banks of hydrangeas and a whimsical candy floss machine - we are in a parallel universe of delight, which is the kind of thing Tlale has been excelling at creating for more than 20 years. The feat of sublimely styled survival is his natural habitat.

But talent and doing everything yourself are not enough, especially in the economic climate of the past two years - so like all good entrepreneurs Tlale pivoted and turned to retail, opening six outlets and supplying stores in Ghana and further afield in Africa.

A look from fashion designer David Tlale's spring/summer 2021/22 collection.
A look from fashion designer David Tlale's spring/summer 2021/22 collection.
Image: Esa Alexander

“I had 18 years to experiment and build the brand - now I need to sell the product.” He tells me it was a paradigm shift and a huge risk.

“People think fashion is a frivolous industry - my mother would say I was making clothes - but it is a business, employing 47 people, supporting their families, putting them through school. It's not just the shows, it is growing the GDP,” he explains.

“I am operating by faith; God has not got me this far to leave me. My spiritual practice has grounded me, I have saved time on a daily basis. Before the pandemic you would go to church and listen to the preacher. Now I am more directly connected to God - he holds tomorrow. You have to be humble, we have lost so many people around us.”

But it is Tlale's steely resolve - probably channelled in his all-black uniform and often hidden behind dark glasses - that speaks to his ability to keep the ship afloat. And beyond that make it sparkle with the fairy dust that has made him a South African household name.

“People think fashion is a frivolous industry — my mother would say I was making clothes — but it is a business ... It’s not just the shows, it is growing the GDP,” explains designer David Tlale.
“People think fashion is a frivolous industry — my mother would say I was making clothes — but it is a business ... It’s not just the shows, it is growing the GDP,” explains designer David Tlale.
Image: Esa Alexander

“I hope I can inspire young people that this is a career that they can choose, like being a doctor, teacher or lawyer, that we can build locally but think globally, and change the perspective that SA has the skills and the resources to compete globally. You know, YSL, Dior and Michael Kors manufactured in SA - we need to bring back the manufacturing industry.”

What would he say to his younger self? “Don't rush because you will crash, take time to grow and learn and be yourself, be educated go and be an intern - if I'd spent longer interning I would not have burnt my fingers.”

Ultimately, he says, patriotism aside, “clothing is clothing, the eyes speak to the heart, the heart speaks to the hand, the hand to the pocket! Pull out the credit card and buy!” It is the path to success via the beauty of the clothes he makes.

“I am too stubborn to fail.”


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