A touch of Tlale

David Tlale had been at his new studio on 7th Avenue, Rosebank, for a mere four days when interviewed by the Mail & Guardian. The cool white foyer is indicative of the designer’s ‘new, clean headspace”, he says.

This year is Tlale’s fifth year in the South African fashion industry. Perhaps his change in location marks a move to consolidate his much-loved label and take it to new heights.

Despite the mammoth task of relocating, Tlale was unfazed that in a week he would reveal his next collection at Jo’burg Fashion Week on July 25.

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to stress about it; we needed to move,” he says.

Nevertheless, expectations are building—spring, summer collections, the design fodder that will be on display at Jo’burg Fashion Week, are greatly anticipated by fashion lovers. And given that this is somewhat of a milestone for Tlale, his fans in particular are looking forward to the show.

But he remains secure in his vision and work. ‘We’re not redefining the brand, we are just selling who we are.” The focus is celebrating the five-year birthday of the brand, he says.

Always an expressive, flamboyant designer, Tlale believes the collection will remain true to that innate exuberance, revealed through his love of volume and his use of luxurious colours and textures.

The anticipation, however, ‘is keeping us on our toes”.

‘People are expecting growth as we move forward.” But this serves only to feed the designer’s enthusiasm for his latest work.

‘The collection is coming together. I’m very excited about it,” he says. ‘I love seeing it evolve from the sketching part to where we are right now. I love seeing the pieces come alive from nowhere.”

His collection features a host of fabrics, including silk velvets, silk chiffons, silk satins and brocades, says Tlale.

His palette will include olive greens with a good deal of black coming through, as well as different shades of gold. Add to this a hint of cream for a touch of freshness, beads and a few feathers and the viewing public should be well pleased, he says.

The designer began his career at the Vaal University of Technology where he completed a diploma in fashion. He lectured at the institution before launching his label full-time in 2003.

Since then Tlale has gone from strength to strength, showcasing his work across the country, as well as internationally. In May, at the invitation of De Beers, Tlale exhibited his work at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art in Washington DC where, he says, his collection received an excellent reception.

‘People responded with interest to the garments,” he says. ‘It simply showed me we have something for someone out there. It just shows that the market is there.”

In what is often little more that a PR exercise for South Africa, local designers are taken on international jaunts that offer them exposure but little scope to grow their businesses.

For Tlale, however, this has not been the case. His overseas experiences have been positive, chiefly because, as he puts it, they are an opportunity to benchmark himself against international standards.

‘We are more than capable of offering the product to the world,” he says. ‘We’ve just got to strengthen the business of fashion.”

This is, of course, easier said than done, given the local industry’s battle with sectoral reform, competition from markets such as China and India and ever-increasing costs, whether electricity or local labour.

And, like most successful designers in the country, private clients remain the lifeblood of Tlale’s business.

He lives by the rule that the client is king and shows this when a client arrives during the interview; he politely pauses to conduct a fitting.

And while many designers long for the opportunity to break into retail and reach a mass market for their garments, Tlale is adamant that retail is not in keeping with the ideals of his work.

‘David Tlale as a brand into retail wouldn’t work,” he says. ‘People come to us for our skill and workmanship.”

Tlale has produced the occasional ready-to-wear range, memorably his excellent 2007 ‘Exodus” collection, and he does corporate wear for clients, but his work focuses on couture—the opulent and the exclusive.

Nevertheless, unwilling to be boxed as a couture label, he points out that his coming collection encompasses ready-to-wear and couture.

Tlale is outspoken about sourcing inspiration for his work both locally and globally, whether from Gaultier, Galliano, Marian Fassler or Clive Rundle. He doesn’t see himself solely as an African designer. While he acknowledges the wonderful influences of the continent, he sees himself as part of a universal whole.

‘We are all part of the cycle, we are all human, our minds function alike, even if it is in different modes,” he says.

‘We are not reinventing the wheel. Clothing is clothing, it’s how you interpret that — as a designer no one tells you what inspires you. The headspace you are in is what inspires your collection.”

Looking back over the past five years, Tlale says the best part was ‘taking the leap of faith and launching the brand”. He downplays the glitz and glamour of the business and remains motivated by the creative process.

He sums it up simply: ‘My work is my life and my life is my work.”

The new spring/summer season kicks off with Jo’burg Fashion Week at Montecasino from July 23 to 26. Designers include Tlale, Thula Sindi, Sun Goddess, Mzansi Designers and Jenni Button’s ‘Philosophy”. Tickets are available at Computicket

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