When I meet David Tlale, it’s the day before what he describes as being bigger than anything he’s ever done in his life. He’s the first South African invited to have a stand-alone show during the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week. The sleepless nights are evident on his face as he and his team put the final touches on his “Transcendence” collection.
Inspired by South Africa’s “City of Gold,” Johannesburg, his makeshift studio at the South African embassy houses the 20-odd pieces. On a rail in one corner of the room, I spot delicate chiffon garments. I gently touch the intricate beading on a silk blouse and the satin ribbon weaving on a mini-dress. There’s also Chantilly lace hemlines and bright shades of golden yellow. They are masterpieces. “It’s all about the details,” he says, like the hidden printed silk lining of a black high-waist skirt.
The quality of his collection makes it clear why he’s no stranger to the international runway. His first industry recognition came in 2002, as a finalist in a local Elle New Talent Competition in Johannesburg. Since then, he has shown in New York, Paris, and across the African continent. This showing though, is special. “It took years of knocking at IMG (the producers behind New York’s Fashion Week), getting [those] appointments and presenting my press book, being interviewed, those excruciating interviews. People think it happens overnight, like yes, we would like you to come through.”
It’s all been worth it, he says.
“I want them to know this brand is made in South Africa, with beautiful aesthetics based on our diversity, our heritage.”
“More than anything though, he’s determined to present a line that’s globally appealing, and on his terms. “I want to do this without being too harsh and saying I’m going to give you, feed you, African prints. I want to give you fashion.”
He is mindful of the pressure often felt by African designers to present the stereotypical African design aesthetic of traditional cloth and bright beading. There’s an expectation, more so perhaps when global brands start featuring African-inspired prints. We saw it in Burberry’s Prorsum womenswear collection. Balenciaga did it, too. So did Lanvin and Marni. These garments are sold for hundreds, some thousands of dollars.
“There’s a huge interest now with fashion on the continent,” says Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, chairperson of African Fashion International (AFI). “We’ve had Vogue magazine, we’ve had the International Herald Tribune showing interest and wanting to know what is happening with our fashion designers.” AFI hosts Fashion Week both in South Africa and other parts of the continent, providing a platform for local designers. She’s in New York to support Tlale’s show, calling it a good time to make a real impact. “You’ve got to be innovative, you’ve got to be relevant, you’ve got to be appealing to global consumers, and you have to have your own DNA”, says Moloi-Motsepe.
David certainly owns his aesthetic—one of the reasons he’s often referred to as South Africa’s Drama King of Fashion. When David Tlale puts on a show, you’re going to be transported to a different world. His world. Last year, he closed off the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg to serve as his runway. There, 92 models strutted down the tarred ramp in honor of the age of its namesake, Mandela. A few months ago, the streets of Cape Town’s Bo Kaap area was the stage for his ready-to-wear collection titled “I Am NOT Colored, I am Color”. Explaining his theme, Tlale said it was inspired by “the colorful world we live in,” while paying homage to his colored mixed-race background.
It’s hard to believe Tlale was almost lost to the finance world, which he considered while in school. Perhaps that’s partly why, though theatrical on stage, he’s serious when it comes to the business of fashion. “At the end of the day it’s all about the numbers,” he says. “Those orders you write, if we grow that, if we grow our exports, our country benefits.”
His plans to do so are already well-calculated. Last year, he opened his flagship store in Johannesburg. Written on his vision board now is his dream to open a store in New York. “I came here and I was like wow, I can see that women wearing a David Tlale blouse, I can see her wearing a David Tlale dress, so that’s the mission,” he says.