Shaldon Kopman: If the monkey suit fits, wear it

In an industry ruled by womenswear, Naked Ape pops up as eclectic and nonconformist: here, red leather dungarees; there, bamboo and mohair knits cut and sewn into over-the-shoulder capes and tops.

Shaldon Kopman, the creator and fashion director of the local menswear brand, was a model, a stylist and a fashion editor before he launched his own range in 2010. With no background in fashion design, the 41-year-old had to learn the technique by watching others and experimenting on himself.

It seems to be working. Earlier this year, his brand got a boost after Samuel L Jackson was seen wearing his designs.

You were born in Pietermaritzburg, raised in Jo'burg and have been to New York, Sydney, Milan and Paris. What made you travel so much?
I went to Milan, Paris and New York as a model and later attended Paris fashion week while working as a fashion editor for Elle South Africa. I worked as a stylist in Sydney on a few album covers, but couldn't stay any longer because of visa issues. In New York, I assisted [celebrity fashion stylist] June Ambrose and I am now fashion director of Naked Ape Fashion Consulting.

From fashion editor to designer, what made you want to create your own menswear range?
I have broad shoulders, long arms and a narrow waist. Everything required altering so that encouraged me to create my own attire. I also realised that many other men were faced with the same problems so our brand caters for all proportions.

What were the challenges at the time?
I couldn't afford to study design full time, so I learnt from everyone else. It took me five years to master a few basic menswear items. Experimenting started in 2005 and Naked Ape was launched only in 2010. Skilled labour, access to variety of fabrication and trims, delivery and the service industry at large in South Africa are probably at the top of the list when it comes to challenges.

Do you think you would have had the same success if you had designed womenswear?
Not necessarily. I did need to numb my frustration and therefore started research into fabric, design, construction and manufacturing while working as a fashion editor. As much as I love the flow, elegance and sexiness of womenswear, there has been no need for me to design it. There is a wealth of fine womenswear designers in South Africa, some whom I absolutely admire and am able to learn so much from. [With menswear] I can try and test the fit, functionality and style on myself before we take it to the market.

What do men want when they shop for high-end clothes?
They want service, and quality in fabrication, assembly and structure, a [good] fit and, most importantly, a simple honest [brand].

Do you need to be daring and slightly nonconformist – for example, the red leather dungarees or the multipanelled zipped over-the-shoulder capes – to be persuasive?
Not really but everyone needs a bit of excitement every so often, so why not do it through fashion? The idea is to entice and open up the imagination of mainstream conservatives.

You've said that the name Naked Ape comes from the book on ­evolutionary transformation by Desmond Morris. What other books do you find inspiring?
Reading has become more of a ­luxury since I started my own business! I'm learning the ropes of business, so anything educational and industry-related is what you find me reading! Next to my bed, you'll find authors like Tim Gunn, Elizabeth Cline and Sandra Burke.

Talking about evolution, there is now a worldwide trend for ­eco-couture and fashion with a consciousness. Do you think it is good news for the industry?
It's good news for the planet but does not make the industry any easier. The more we can educate our consumers on "the cost of cheap fashion" and how it affects us all, the more we will see the growth of smaller "conscious" manufacturers of fabric and garments.

In September, you told me that you had found your identity "four seasons back". What is the Shaldon Kopman-Naked Ape identity?
Basotho Cowboy was the collection that set it off. The brand's identity can be summed up in a suit: street-savvy, evolutionary African.

There is a common perception that men let their partner choose clothes for them. Is it still true?
Yes and no! Men who care about their appearance will shop for themselves, but there are many professionals who do not have the time to get out there. Your partner knows what you like and knows your character better than anyone else.

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