David Tlale is arresting: symmetrically arched brows, dark, thick, floppy Mohawk, silver accessories, all black.
Thirteen years into a highly acclaimed career as one of South Africa’s leading fashion designers, he has a stash of awards and showcased at New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. He is as mysterious as he is fascinating. His life and work are one.
He is here for the Kenya Worldwide Fashion Week.
Besides a stint with Caroline Herrera, New York and a friend who is simply calls Julian he says, “I was self taught. The struggles of trying to establish myself with nobody giving guidance made me want to be a mentor designer.”
Tlale lives an exhausting life. He meets potential investors and government officials across the continent to steep them in the business of fashion.
He has a studio in Jo’burg and two stores in Jo’burg and Cape Town. He runs a mentorship programme and talks of opening a fashion academy or three.
Mornings start as early as 4am. He is fuelled by green juice and veggies. “I am a very spiritual person. I believe my journey has been very God-orchestrated. I see things happening. Things I am unable to do in my own power. That have really transcended my imagination.”
He is not being superfluous. Tlale nestles in that sweet spot between daring and commercial. “I think it’s an organic process. I studied to be an accountant. I was the best student in my class, then taught for four years.
It is not about you as a designer. It is about the business of fashion.
“How I carry myself, sell, market and display the product all comes down to that. When we started it was a lot of couture, frills and whistles. As you grow older you realise those things don’t sell except for private clients. The distribution market needs affordable products,” he says of his business.
His is reputably high-end. “We want to sell at Saks Fifth Avenue and Selfridges where people pay $400 (Sh41,600) to $500 (Sh52,000) for an Armani blouse.”
MONEY CRITICAL IN FASHION SUCCESS
Fashion has only recently come alive to how critical money is to success. For Tlale his test was the 2014 credit crunch in South Africa. It forced some designers to close shop. He must have done something right.
“It is very important to minimise overheads. We just have to be creative in house. But, our biggest business is private clients. And people always need clothes. They will get married. They will die. Crunch times don’t last forever. It did affect us a little bit. Our price point is a little high because of rent. I am an entrepreneur. I have 26 families I take care of. I do what I must. I live on less; cut off things I love doing. Tough times inspire tenacity, sustainability and survival.”
To illustrate this, he said; “We did an all white collection. It didn’t sell. We dyed everything black and the entire collection sold out.”
Tlale says “We are out there looking for investors because I know what needs to be done now. If you don’t, you can get taken for a ride. I know a few designers who sold their souls for money. Investors come and go. Passion stays.”
Beyond that, of course, is the drudgery and inevitability of hard work. “People always try to become greater than what they can do for the brand. It’s my name out there but I also work for the brand. I don’t come in at 11am and at 3pm I’m off. You can’t separate the business aspect from your creativity. If your creativity is not paying your bills then what is the point?”
Naming a brand after yourself can be construed as egotistical because it is so unapologetically self-referential. Yet it has consequences.
“Separating David Tlale the brand from David Tlale the man? Sadly I have gotten to a point where I can’t. People never see David Tlale the person. They see David Tlale the brand. It forces me to be on 24/7. I have to be very careful. I tread on thin ice. My world has become smaller. Sometimes I wish I was the young guy starting out and could be invisible. But, I do it because it comes from within. It doesn’t bother me that I have lost myself.”
His shows are legend, epic and spectacular. In 2011, on a rainy, chilly, slippery night, he turned the entire Nelson Mandela bridge into a runway. “I have to think, this is entertainment. Are they going to remember me, my music or my pieces?”
He calls what he does the “David Tlale Movement”. No one ever tells him David what to do. “My team knows. Once I have talked - to myself - and prayed, they can’t talk me out of anything.
“My instincts have played a major role. I am such a visionary and I am very strong-willed. I had interns. I think they left hating me. The only time has been when the client does not like what I have done. But for me it isn’t that the client does not like it. It is that the client does not understand what I was trying to do,” he says.
No, he is not impervious. “I have a particular message I need to portray. And I can see it. Sometimes I make mistakes. I buy fabric, try, and if it’s not working I have a right to kill that line and start again. It has happened several times. I’m my own worst critic.”
“By the time the media comes through I have done it already. By the time the world sees it I’m exhausted and ready to create something else. I find pure joy in making bold statements that make people think. My team asks how we got there. I don’t know. It just happens.”