/ 1 May 2023

African fashion for Africans at KwaMashu academy

One stitch at a time: Fezile Mdletshe guides students at Fezile Fashion Skills Academy, in KwaMashu, Durban, through their work. Garments created at the institution.

‘For the longest time, I had the vision of having a fashion school in the township, and that was all I was obsessed about, not knowing the greater purpose is not even that. The greater purpose is accessibility and customisation,” says fashion designer and entrepreneur Fezile Mdletshe. 

A PhD candidate and former lecturer at Durban University of Technology, she has relentlessly paved her way in the fashion industry one qualification at a time. However, that did not pull her away from her roots — if anything it drew her closer. Mdletshe opened the first fashion academy in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMashu a few years ago.  

The 38-year-old started sewing at the age of nine when her grandmother, who worked at clothing factories, gave her a sewing machine. 


“I was raised by a single mother — my dad went to prison. I must have been around seven or eight years old, so I went through the usual nonsense. We became the laughing stock of our neighbourhood.” 

Mdletshe says, “I can actually tell these stories with a smile on my face. I remember people calling me ‘ingane yes’boshwa’ (daughter of a prisoner) and literally no one would sit with me. I once carried pap and tripe for lunch and all the kids that were sitting next to me ran away because of the smell. I ended up eating lunch in the toilet at school.”

Because of years of bullying and being isolated, Mdletshe drew closer  to what she loved the most, which was sketching and sewing. Her brother encouraged her to stay on that route as she was so brilliant at it. Mdletshe saw it as an escape from what life was throwing at her and her family at the time.  

After school, she studied fashion design at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) to master’s level  and went on to cement a place for herself in the industry. 

“By the age of 21, I was supplying The Space. I also won entrepreneur of the year at age 22. 

“Later, I got scouted by Mr Price to be in its trainee fashion grad programme. I worked my butt off for three years until I was headhunted by Edcon, where I was a fashion buyer,” she says. 

Mdletshe then embarked on an entrepreneurial journey, which she says did not work out the way she had hoped it would. 


“I went back home eMandeni, kwagogo (at my grandmother’s house) where I bumped into a group of women who sewed in the area who I worked with for a while. As I was picking up the pieces, I went back to DUT to study and eventually got the opportunity to lecture at the institution,” Mdletshe explains. 

She says lecturing sparked something in her. She loved it so much she fell into mentorship, which is something she had not expected. 

She was also part of BET Africa’s reality show Made in Africa, where she mentored the upcoming designers who were on the platform. 

“I continued teaching and I realised that there are a lot of gaps in the education system, especially for creative students. 

“For example, taking away technikons was the government’s biggest mistake because it really stole that practical and creative part of subjects. I truly believe that move disadvantaged the black child.” 

“You get 20% who can be enrolled into university but what happens to the other 80%?” 

That was the thought that led her to start the Fezile Fashion Skills Academy (FFSA). 

The academy 

Mdletshe says the FFSA journey started in 2019. 

“I wanted the FFSA brand to become a township concept. So, the vision at that time was to have a quality and accredited fashion school of excellence in a black community. 

“I wanted a design school that provided access to the black child.” 

Mdletshe says by access she means someone can participate in an academy like FFSA, whether they have a matric certificate or not. 

The institution goes all-out to get accreditations to accommodate anyone who wants to study there. 

“This is for the black child, or anyone for that matter, who cannot go to a traditional university because they could not obtain a matric.”  


She points out there are many reasons why people are not able to obtain a qualification, such as matric. 

“There is a misconception that there are people who do not finish school because they are not clever and that is a narrow-minded way of thinking. Some of these children are breadwinners due to loss of parents and guardians. They are forced to look for jobs and fend for their siblings, leaving their education to suffer.”

Mdletshe says because it understands these societal issues, the FFSA has taken them into consideration, such as offering weekend classes for those who are unable to do full-time courses at the school.   

“What we do apply is that element of Africanness and the trueness of our identity. We don’t do anything Westernised. I always tell them that if they want a design, they must search within themselves and their community, country or even Africa as a whole,” says Mdletshe.  

FFSA is so committed to acknowledging the lived experience of the students that it teaches in the students’ home language — Zulu. 

Mdletshe says, “A lot of them have been labelled slow learners. It breaks my heart because, if you could see our students, they are the most talented, bright minds you could ever meet in your life. 

Because she understands the chaotic journey of being a misfit, Mdletshe and her team have organically created a space where students feel as though they are a part of a family. They are able to show students they can do whatever they put their minds to.  

The first batch of students doing the three-year programme will graduate in 2025. 

“I am really hoping to see the value of our education and the value of our framework and our student-centred-ness, to see if we are able to put into practice what we do at FFSA. I cannot wait to see a new generation of extremely cool and talented black creators,” she says. 

The state of SA fashion

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Mdletshe says the state of South African fashion is satisfactory and social media is one of the biggest enablers of that. 

“I am really happy with where we are and it is really through the assistance and growth of social media and the way black people are using and are in acceptance of digital and modern media. 

“Social media has allowed us to tell our stories the way that we want to.”

She says social media has given black people the power to tell their stories their way, from their lived experience. 

“You look at the likes of Riky Rick, Okmalumkoolkat, Don Dada and Laduma, who boldly express who they are and where they come from through music as well as fashion. They and many others glamourise our blackness which is great because, for the longest time, being a black person was the ugliest thing.” 

Mdletshe says, “If we go back, we have seen how Western brands have appropriated African designs. But when we started cementing our voice, and archiving our stories on social media platforms like YouTube, even they knew that we got our power back.”  

FFSA is probably the only school that celebrates and embraces African stories the way it does, she says. 

“I am happy with where we come from, where we are and where we are going.”