Arts and Culture

From Soweto streets to London catwalks

Staff Reporter

Soweto designer Lesego Malatsi aims to conquer the fashion world, and made his debut at London Fashion Week.

Amid all the glamour and autumnal colours at London fashion week, a touch of Africa was electrifying the catwalk. With a stunning and dramatic collection, a young and very nervous designer made his debut on an international catwalk.

Lesego Malatsi is not a privileged western design school graduate swathed in expensive labels but a young man from a South African township whose journey from rags to couture is as remarkable as his clothes. “I never dreamed I would be showing my clothes on the international stage,” said Malatsi. “I never realised it could happen and it is very exciting.”

Malatsi’s ambitions were formed under the corrugated-metal roof of his home in Soweto, Johannesburg, but there was no money to send him to college and he seemed destined to join South Africa’s unemployed. “But after my father passed away, my mother had a small pension and she used it to send me to school. It was difficult to study because fashion is one career that requires a lot of money, it can be elite. I didn’t realise that until I was midway through my studies, so it was not easy, it was difficult, but I wanted a good education.”

On leaving college, Malatsi found local banks were not willing to invest in a young man who wanted to make clothes and he faced the dole queue once again until a chance recommendation found him at the doors of Richard Branson’s business mentoring foundation, Virgin Unite. He began Mzansi Designers Emporium and found himself employing a growing number of staff.

From African fashion to global enterprise
“There is a lot of talent in Africa. It made me realise how important my success was to not just me and my family [but] for empowering other people.” Malatsi now has 17 people working for him and has become one of a growing surge of young entrepreneurs in South Africa and many believe they will be the key to lifting the country out of poverty. “I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur, I wanted to work, but now I find I have a business and a vision. I have a five-year plan to create 850 jobs in South Africa and to take African fashion global,” he said.

“One message that I wanted to put across is that we want to break the stereotypes of Africa, the perception people have of Africa. In South Africa, we are celebrated as being the rainbow nation by the rest of the world and I think my use of colour reflects that. I tried to transcend what is seen as European and what is seen as African, forget the racial lines, and also to change the perception of how clothes should be worn.”

Talking before last night’s show he said he could not remember the racial mix of the models he chooses to wear his clothes. “I don’t know the ratio, I didn’t think that way. I just think about people wearing beautiful clothes. Because these are not just clothes for catwalk models, these are clothes for every person.”

After last night’s show, organiser Fashions Finest said the collection had set the catwalk alight, tweeting the clothes were “hotter than hot”.

With Richard Branson now a fan of Malatsi’s menswear and a new flagship store in Johannesburg for his label, Malatsi is ready to bring South African creativity to the fashionistas of Europe. “I am a boy from Soweto but I have global ambitions,” he said.

London fashion week is part of the biannual round of seasonal fashion shows that take place in New York, London, Milan and Paris. The African theme was also present in New York where Nigerian fashionista Lanre Da Silva-Ajayi presented her latest collection in an acclaimed runway show.

—guardian.co.uk

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