Botswana's small step for fashion

Mpho Kuaho nurtured her fashion instincts on a diet of South African couture—paging through magazines and watching South African television in Botswana, before studying fashion at South African schools.

She incorporates elements of the ubiquitous Xhosa design in her elegant creations and has dressed models for the Durban July horse race.

Retailers in Botswana have not shown an interest in developing local design and money remains a critical challenge to the industry, with many designers working from home.

Yet, Kuaho believes, the Batswana are coming to value local design and she literally encourages her customers to wear their citizenship on their sleeves—the 09267 in her label ‘Jophes 09267” refers to the dialling code for Botswana, while ‘Jophes” is her husband’s nickname.

‘People are saying, there is no reason to buy from South Africa now; we have our own designers,” she said.

Growing up in the Northern mining town of Phikwe, Kuaho read about established South African designers such as Craig Native and Amanda Laird Cherry in magazines. ‘Back then, there wasn’t anything like fashion design here,” she said.

In the late 1990s, she studied clothing production in Mafikeng, equipping herself technically to enter the fashion world.

Her desire to explore a more creative side of fashion spurred her to enrol at the Linea Academy in Durban.
There she completed a bachelor’s degree and watched as her garments graced catwalks in the Durban Designer Collection.

Kuaho tells me her history over tea at Gabarone’s Walmont Ambassador hotel. Seated in the lounge area, her brightly coloured scarf and green jacket outshine her husband Joseph’s black suit and white, collared shirt.

She exchanges a quick look with him when I ask why she left her budding career in Durban.

‘I have a family,” she said with a smile, explaining that she returned to ‘start up her own little thing”.

She could hardly have anticipated that this future ‘little thing” would span so much activity.

She produces street wear for a retail store, dresses beauty queens, designs collections for fashion shows and will soon work in the wardrobe department on a feature film.

Watching her straight-backed and perched on the edge of her chair, her eyes and body alert for my next question, I sense the energy that fuels her busy existence.

When asked about the genre her clothing falls into, she responds: ‘I don’t limit myself. I’m a designer.”

Kuaho’s winter collection, launched last week, employs dibatha (patchwork). She explains that people used to make cloth out of patches of old clothing because they could not afford new garments.

‘My grandmother used to do it,” she said. ‘I didn’t really have a clue how I would do it now, but it’s something I’m trying to own.”

She sees herself among a generation of fashion designers who studied in South Africa and are now returning to Botswana to build local fashion.

Consumers in Botswana support these ambitions with their growing interest in design. Moreover, tertiary institutes, such as the Malaysian University in Gabarone, are beginning to offer courses in fashion.

Kuaho’s day job consists of running a cottage industry from the back of her house. The garments produced by her six employees are sold in the local Y Clothing Fashion Boutique. At runs of three garments, the items are relatively exclusive.

Most of her fabric comes from South Africa and many of the women who work for her come from Sierra Leone and Zambia. ‘We rely on foreigners. We don’t have Batswana who are good seamstresses and good pattern-makers,” she said.

Kuaho said that many designers operate from their houses because it is difficult to secure finance from banks. Another obstacle to the industry’s growth is that beauty-pageant winners struggle to afford designer creations because they lack sponsorship. ‘Their parents might not have 900 pula for an evening gown,” she said.

South African retailers dominate the landscape in Botswana but companies that support local design in South Africa, such as Woolworths and Edgars, are yet to sign up designers from Botswana.

‘A few months ago, we held a buyer-seller seminar. All of the big buyers were invited and none turned up,” she said.

In December last year Kuaho bagged first place in the Redds African Fashion competition, up against designers from 10 other countries.

Redds will sponsor her trip to the Cape Town Fashion Week next month as part of her prize.

Later in the year Kuaho will work as assistant wardrobe designer on the filming of No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on Alexander McCall-Smith’s internationally renowned book.

Tumi Makgetla travelled to Botswana to learn more about the activities of First National Bank Botswana. Flights and accommodation were sponsored by the bank

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