Monday, 28 September 2009

Cat Walk to New York - David Tlale's World

Weaving harmony into contrast
By Howard Drakes

A lone bookshelf stands square against a corner in a large, flowing room. On one shelf are books and magazines at rest. A bright yellow one stands out, urging you to notice it; Vogue Italia, the Barbie Issue.

Framed on both sides by books of a very different nature, it is held, almost cradled, as if being shown to the world. To its left a navy blue New King James Version Bible and on the right a pitch black Spiritual Renewal Bible, in paradox, its gentle keepers.

Across the room the game continues. The glossy spines of 20th Century Fashion and New New York Interiors sitting pout amongst African Kings and the Voices of the San, undisturbed by the seeming contradiction.

Contrast is at its starkest when it wears a human form. At its deepest when it weaves itself into the tapestry that is human social spaces. It is most dynamic when, beyond showing us things seemingly apart, it pulls them together, mixing oil and water.

This is the place where clothes are given life. Pins and needles, scissors and sowing machines, all tearing limp pieces of material apart, rearranging, before putting life back into them; endless combinations of colours, textures and shapes.


Standing in the cutting room of his Rosebank studio, South African fashion designer, David Tlale, is a mixture of nerves and excitement. He should be. It is just over a week he showcases his “Cultural Intimacy” collection at the Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week on September 11. The collection is not yet finished.

Tlale is well known in the South African fashion world, his latest accolade was being named Designer of the Year at the Arise African Fashion Week in June. His prize, being part of the Promise of Africa Collective – an initiative of Arise Magazine and African Fashion International – and the opportunity to showcase at one of the world’s biggest fashion gatherings.

Inspired by the traditions of Southern Africa’s vanishing cultures, Tlale wanted to explore heritage and culture in his collection. He chose the title “Cultural Intimacy” with a view to having his collection “bring the world closer to the diverse cultures of our continent through visual and moving art”.

To do this he teamed up with Eugenie Drakes of piece, a company that works with Southern Africa’s cultural heritage and diversity in the handcraft sector.

It was an exercise in fusing the old and the new, about exploring vastly different worlds and weaving their voices, the colours and textures, into a rich tapestry of expression and then presenting this story on a global stage.

A necklace of horn and bone is added to one of the pieces.

“We have a huge responsibility to teach the world where we come from and what we stand for as South Africans” says Tlale. “I love being African, I love being South African but more than anything its not going out there and being vulgar about being African. It is about teaching people about the heritage and the luxury we, as Africans, have.”

The collaboration was built on contrast. First in the diversity of the voices, expressed through their cultures and crafts, but also in the worlds that came represented. It brought together the suburban high fashion world of DT, the ancient traditions of Bushmen from the Kalahari, Swazi women master weavers from Tintsaba, and craftsmen of Bone Idol in the wildlife rich Mpumalanga Lowveld.

High fashion is a strange vehicle for the showcasing of ancient cultures and yet, in using ostrich eggshell beads, Tlale took the disappearing hunter-gatherer to the most decadent expression of contemporary human culture. The techniques used to make the beads are 30 000 years old, symbolic of their culture’s message of sustainability, ironic inside a world obsessed with this idea, one in which their way of life is no longer sustainable.

The tradition of sisal weaving among rural Swazi women is a skill handed down from mother to daughter. Being part of this project was another step in this tradition’s journey going into the future as it shifts itself from function to aesthetic to ensure its survival.

The craftsmen from the Lowveld work in a symbolic engagement with the cycle-of-life, taking old horn and bone from Nguni cows and wild game, and transforming the throw away into home accessories and jewellery.

“What is interesting for me,” says Drakes, “is if you look at the hands that make the products and the environments they come from, they are hard and harsh and yet the pieces have a fineness, a grace and beauty about them.”

The DT brand ethos is one of luxury and elegance and Tlale’s interpretation of these diverse elements resulted in the balancing of coarse sisal, hard bone, and ostrich eggshell with the delicate silks which were the basis of the collection.

Borne of contrast, Tlale has the tools to unlock that which should contradict towards forging symmetry. Born in Johannesburg’s East Rand in the township of Vosloorus to a single mother and three siblings, Tlale did his schooling in the township and, after matriculating, began studying internal auditing in Pretoria.

After eight months he said enough but, having spent time around fashion students, he felt he had found his calling.

“When I told my mother I wanted to study fashion she said: ‘What! Are you mad?’”

In the South Africa of 1990s the world of high fashion was one far removed from Tlale’s world and a strange career choice for any township boy, particularly one that had the opportunity to study.

After completing his four year diploma at the Vaal University of Technology he started lecturing but the dream of starting his own label was never far in the back of his mind. So, heeding the desire for big things, Tlale quit his job in 2003 and started the David Tlale label from his mother’s small house in Vosloorus. The rest is just a blur inside of a career he describes as “short and sweet”.

While fashion is his world, his first love is something higher. Tlale is a soulful man, literally. Deeply religious, Tlale’s faith is at the core of everything he does and, despite excessive demands on his time he rounds off his six day working week with a routine pilgrimage home on Sundays to the Apostolic Faith Mission.

It is the spiritual home to a congregation of more than 1500 people as well as a healthy community. He is heavily involved in the youth and, while being a celebrity, he is more a role model.

“Above all, I think what keeps me grounded, keeps me focussed, is this relationship I have with God,” he says, staring off into the distance. “I understand that everything that has happened in my life, all that has come to be, it is all God orchestrated, it is all God lead and inspired.”

Tlale is grounded in the values of Christianity inside of an industry that is often fickle and associated with ego. It is a fine balance struck between the needs, seemingly contradictory, of spirituality and those of the fashion industry, of concern for others versus the concern with self.

“More than just being a Christian, I think it is our task as human beings to give back to people that don’t have. We have to be caring, we have to be taking care…we must reach out to others with assistance and help them to stand on their own.”

Together with faith, Tlale has a strong ethic of service. A youth leader in his church, he teaches Sunday school classes to teens. He is also involved in his community, sponsoring orphan’s school uniforms and Christmas parties or fund raising for the Mohau Home, a care centre for disabled children in Vosloorus. Every year Tlale also makes matric dance dresses for underprivileged girls.

“Church does not only belong to a particular building or space or place. Anywhere people gather and worship and pray, that is church…so me and you coming together to pray, we make up the church of God,” explains David to his Sunday school group at The Apostolic Faith Mission in Vosloorus on Johannesburg’s East Rand.

“Hands together. Arms together. Knees together. Bums out. Eyes closed. Tipu ta, tipu, tipu ta…” David takes time out from worship to play games with his church’s youngest members. These sessions are used as a vehicle for teaching values and are done through song and dance.

“I’m very proud of him because he looks after me,” says his mother, Joyce Tlale, pulling an elegant, black evening dress from her cupboard. “I never go to the shops to buy clothes, he makes everything for me.”

Tlale arrived back in the country on Tuesday and was back behind his desk without having slept. The experience was “amazing”, he says, sipping on a coffee. His collection was well received – described by some as “a breath of fresh air” – and closed out to a standing ovation.

The extra time in New York, he says, was dedicated to the “business of fashion”, meetings with potential agents and buyers as well as PR people; to keep the DT name alive in New York.

This is another step in a grand plan: “Our vision for David Tlale, the brand, is a global vision. Its not just a South African vision, or a Joburg vision, it cant be. I believe I’m not just born for Joburg, I believe I’m born for the world.”

Next to the bookshelf, hanging two dimensional on a wall is a man, a message. It is larger than life. “Yes we can”, a mantra that shook America and then the world, is a simple, if not obvious, message, one that resonates throughout the DT studio. It is a message that has shown its truth for DT here in South Africa and it was one that travelled on their lips to New York.

Tlale’s world of contrast is a smaller one inside of a country built on contrast. The promise of the man, his team, his brand, the materials, the hands that pull together these different and contrasting elements, is in many ways the promise of the new South Africa; a promise that says that opposites can synchronise and find a way to walk the same path and thus deny the logic of polarity and division…harmony in contrast.


A memory board hanging in the studio tells a visual story of David Tlale the man and his brand. Interviews, press clippings of fashion shows, and letters of thanks from celebrities he has dressed are mixed with photographs of his mother, a metal cross and a poster of Barack Obama with his campaign slogan “Yes we can” – something resonates with Tlale and his vision.

All pictures by Bram Lammers

Originally published in The Weekender newspaper. 

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