/ 22 March 2024

Denim designer reaps what he sews

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Brainchild of Tshepo Mohlala, who started the brand nine years ago.

Even in a mall as swanky as Joburg’s Hyde Park Corner, this cathedral of cloth stands out. The dramatic circular entrance of Tshepo Jeans’ flagship store, with its red, yellow and indigo colours and “TSHEPO” in caps, already tells you that you have arrived, in every sense of the word.

Well, I am still heading there and, in front of me going in the same direction is someone with a coffee in his hand, dressed in well-cut jeans, a red checked shirt and trendy sneakers. Based on the pics I have seen, it must be him — Tshepo Mohlala, founder of Tshepo Jeans.

Yes, he realises I am following him.

He stops and his warm smile immediately puts me at ease. He embraces me and we walk into his shop filled with meticulously crafted denim pieces. It’s understated cool, with a soundtrack of pleasant soul.

After a quick look around, we go to the restaurant across from Tshepo Jeans for our interview. 

Patience is required, though. Everyone wants a moment — from the waiters to a typical well-heeled Hyde Park patron. And he gives it to them, after a quick apology to me. 

Then the personable Mohlala checks in about my career, my wellbeing and views on politics.

His brand is hugely popular but he is also aware of the controversy around sustainability and how denim is a thirsty product to turn into clothing.

But back to the beginning. 

Mohlala was born and bred in the East Rand township of Tsakane. His roots are still crucial to him. In the store, there is a huge Tshepo logo — a three-pronged crown. Each one represents a person who is dear to him and who helped to shape him.

“I was raised by three strong women. My mother, Masesi Mamba, who taught me how to hustle, my grandmother, an Apostle and masterful storyteller, whose words, ‘Tshepo, you’re a gentleman and should always look like one,’ echo in my head as I get dressed every morning,” he says. 

“Then there is trendy aunt Takalani, the first person to graduate in our neighbourhood. 

“She would visit us in Tsakane dressed head to toe in denim. She ignited my interest in fashion and love for denim.

“Founded in 2015, Tshepo Jeans is my story and you’ll find the three women who raised me in the crown, ever present in my creative process.”

Mohlala’s upbringing was steeped in spirituality and community. His grandmother instilled in him a deep sense of empathy from an early age. 

“The product is not just a product, it’s got layers to it. It is spiritual, it carries a message of hope,” Mohlala reflects, drawing parallels between his denim brand and the resilience he witnessed in his grandmother.

Seeing her help others and fearlessly telling her story throughout his life is one of the major foundations of his brand. 

For some, their environment determines their career path but that was not the case for Mohlala. 

“I was never surrounded by art or fashion, however, I was surrounded by stories,” the 32-year-old says. 

After high school, Mohlala studied film at Afda in Cape Town but quickly became aware of his love for fashion. 

“Both these mediums — film and fashion — are about storytelling. One tells stories through cloth while the other tells stories through motion pictures. So, I wanted to use clothing as my vehicle to tell my stories.”

He would go on to study fashion at the University of Johannesburg but dropped out because he could no longer afford the fees. However, that did not deter him. Mohlala continued in the fashion industry as a stylist and photographer.

“I attended fashion shows and introduced myself to other designers, so I made sure that I immersed myself in the fabric of the South African fashion industry, so the love never left me,” he shares. 

Eventually, he started a brand with a friend but it lasted only two years. 

“I left everything behind and it took a bit of time to find myself. I was couch-surfing just for me not to go back home to Tsakane,” he recalls.  “I took a seven-month gap and I suffered from deep depression.” 

Mohlala felt a change of name was what he needed after the failure of the brand and made his Instagram name “Tshepo the jean-maker”. 

“I then wrote, ‘Something big is coming!’” 

Two months later, Tshepo Jeans was born and nine years later the label that bears his name continues to thrive.

“I remember writing a long Facebook post about who I was and where I come from and my passions for jeans. People started re-posting and sharing and we started getting media attention and, most importantly, people started buying our pieces,” he says. 

Nowadays, Meghan Markle, England’s Duchess of Sussex, President Cyril Ramaphosa and many other famous bodies are covered by Tshepo jeans. 

The process of being where he is today did not come without hurdles along the way. Mohlala says it was a difficult business to fund. However, people took a strong liking to Tshepo Jeans — some even went as far as injecting funds into it.

Tshepo Amsterdam Launch 43 � Mika Jansen @mikajansenphotography
Jean-ius: Designs from Tshepo Jeans

Creative steps 

Mohlala’s creative process is founded in storytelling and he finds those stories everywhere he goes.  

“I get inspired by people and conversations. I get inspired by taking long drives and by spaces. So, once I have an idea, I sit down with my team and we take a jab at it.

“I am also blessed to have talented young people to work with who look at things from a global perspective. You will find them asking, ‘What would Gucci do?’” he laughs. 

The creative process differs with every product, he says, and that has made them shift from operating in a hand-to-mouth way to being more cognisant of seasons and collections. 

“This year October is probably the first time we are going to do a proper collection. We have never had a collection before, so that’s what we are currently working on.” 


According to the United Nations, “a typical pair of jeans takes 10 000 litres of water to produce, equal to what a person drinks in 10 years”. 

Mohlala is aware of the effect the industry has on the environment. 

“We source friendly and we make sure that every product we source is checked, approved and has the relevant certification. 

“We also work with a green factory in Mauritius — they also produce for big brands and have good practices,” he says. 

The designer says they are finding small but meaningful ways of being sustainable and one of them is putting employees first.

“For us, it is about looking at sustainability from a social impact point of view. We hire people who live close to the area, so they don’t have to spend money and hours on the road trying to get to work. 

“We brought in people from overseas to train them how to make a pair of jeans of the highest level. They will forever have these skills —  far beyond Tshepo Jeans,” he says.

Mohlala says they also have a collaboration with Sappi, the South African paper company. 

Over the years, Sappi has become a leader in green fashion, providing a sustainable fibre called lyocell. They blend this with cotton to create a sustainable fabric. 

Lyocell is used to make garments such as jeans, T-shirts and dresses and two-thirds of the world’s supply is produced at a Sappi mill. 

Tshepo The Jean Maker Profile (1) 1 (1)
Jean-ius: Designs from Tshepo Jean

“So, we reached out to them and they said they would love for us to use this fibre to continue telling proudly South African stories.

“This was a surreal moment for us — a paper company that has been in existence for 88 years, a company that is known for paper, but is actually killing in sustainable fashion, and they want to associate with us.”

Building a name is tough. But building a brand with a name is the most common one in South Africa —especially if you don’t have big bucks to fund it — is even harder. 

However, everything is falling in place organically for Tshepo Jeans.

“I think my legacy will be this brand … moving from one generation to the next using the same methods of how we make a pair of jeans today and passing the knowledge. 

“I want them to say, ‘He became a master of his craft.’”