David Tlale is running late for the interview. After waiting 45 minutes at his Rosebank studio I give up and we reschedule for the next day.
It might sound like typical fashion diva behaviour, but it’s not quite what it seems: He’s been stuck at SARS in the CBD and he’s phoned me numerous times; genuinely apologetic and keeping me up to date with his progress. He seems like a nice guy.
That’s confirmed when I finally meet him the next morning. The 33-year-old designer comes across as focused, ambitious and bright, and, impressively, doesn’t take any of the many calls flashing on his busy cell phone during the interview.
David first made an impact by winning the SA Fashion Week Elle New Talent Competition and being chosen by the Sunday Times as Best New Designer of the Year, both in 2003. Last year, despite criticism that he was not yet ready, David made his debut in Paris, thanks to the support and guidance of designer Gavin Rajah. The experience seems to have refined and matured his work.
His recent collection at Audi Joburg Fashion Week created something of a stir. It was a collection that I admired for its creativity, fun and daring. I probably wouldn’t wear many of the pieces myself, nor would many other men, but it was undeniably innovative and impactful. In South African fashion that’s often hard to come by.
Tell me about your background. There’s seems to be little out there about you.
I was born and bred in Vosloorus, which is in the East Rand next to Boksburg, and I attended Primary and High School there. I was raised by a single mother – I’ve got two older sisters and a younger brother. And in ‘93 I went to Tshwane University of Technology to study Internal Auditing.
(Laughs) It’s very funny… Halfway through the first semester I said ‘I don’t like what I’m doing. I’d rather drop out’. And I did. And I started hanging out with fashion students and I kind of enjoyed what they did. That same year, I registered to study fashion at the Vaal Triangle Technicon. It was the shock of my life. I thought that designing was just sitting down and drawing and nothing else. I got a rude awakening when I had to start making patterns and making the clothes themselves…
So you never really had a desire to do fashion from a young age?
It only started when I was studying internal auditing. My dress code has always been flamboyant, but I never realised that it was the route I should be taking.
So what sparked that off?
I used to make clothes for Barbie dolls and I used to have this thing about playing with dolls’ hair. But I never really thought about it as a career. I think it was only when I started hanging with the fashion students – that was the trigger. And I really fell in love with it and discovered that this is my passion.
Your collection at Audi Joburg Fashion Week; what was the motivation behind it?
The journey of the collection started last year in November when I was travelling and started seeing different rock stars and I was drawn to this culture of rock artists. And when discussing ideas with a friend of mine I decide to focus on the rock star element, but bringing that into the David Tlale signature look. We’ve used non-conventional fabrics and some elements of the collection weren’t even designed – they were engineered as we were making things. We explored colour – greens and yellow, bronze and white in-between,
Were you making any kind of statement about men’s clothing?
The message we wanted to pass on is that you don’t have to be a conventional man or dress conventionally. There is so much you can do with men’s clothing. People always say a men’s trouser is a men’s trouser, a men’s jacket is a men’s jacket; so what can you do with it? But there is so much you can do – in terms of colour, fabrication and design detail.
Do you think that men’s clothing is becoming more innovative?
Yes, it is. There is a revolution happening where men are wanting to look different and to try out new things. We can express ourselves as men; in how we feel and how we want to be perceived.
I noticed that there was a hint of playing with gender stereotypes in the collection. Was that a conscious thing?
That was a conscious decision that we made. The only person that does this well is [Jean-Paul] Gaultier. And I thought, “you know what, no black designer has done it, so let me do it. Let’s make people think and make people talk.” For some the collection was too forward, too ahead, and they didn’t understand it. And I think that that’s good because we don’t want to be seen as a brand that conforms to what is happening; we want to set trends.
What kind of man do you design for?
A man that is ‘out there’, not scared to make a statement and bold enough to say, “I am here.”
How was your debut in Paris received last year?
I was very scared that I was going to be chopped into pieces and be told that “you’re doing crap,” but amazingly enough I got great reviews. I don’t know if they were lying, but I was told that I was on point and I just need to strengthen the signature. And coming back home I knew that we are on track and we are not that far behind from what you see overseas. They only thing that they’ve got that we don’t is the money, PR and the marketing.
And did the experience have an impact on your work?
It changed my perspective to not just see myself as a local designer but to see myself and my brand through the eyes of the world; to view my brand as a global brand – whereby I will be able to give [John] Galliano or Gaultier a run for their money. Not necessarily to compete with them, but to be ranked up there with them. That’s my mission in life.
And what about a David Tlale ready-to-wear collection that people will be able to buy in stores?
I believe it will happen, but not on a big scale. It will be specialised. A David Tlale client is very particular; they would hate to see ten other people wearing the same piece. It would be smaller, short runs that only a particular kind of person would wear.
Where do you see SA fashion right now?
We can put South African fashion on the global map – especially with the rich heritage and diverse culture that we have. We’re still taking baby steps, but I really believe that South Africa will become one of the world’s fashion capitals.
Do you think that it’s problematic that we have so many fashion weeks?
That’s a tricky question. I started out at SA Fashion Week and showcased with them for three years, until last year when I went to Joburg Fashion week. It was a business move for me and part of trying out new things. If it was my world, or an ideal world, it would be great if the two organisations could come together and be as one – and maybe have the summer collections in Joburg and the winter collections in Cape Town. It will be good for designers and better for the media and international buyers: If they want to come to see our work at the moment they have to stay for two bloody weeks – which is insane and the costs are ridiculous. And there would also be less of the underlying racial issues that are there.
Has being openly gay affected your career?
I don’t think it has. I don’t take my lifestyle as a hindrance in anything. What you see is what you get – whether people approve or not. This is who I am. My sexuality doesn’t play a role in my work.
What advice would you give younger gay guys who might look up to you as a role model?
It’s a very simple thing. What’s important is that you focus on what you want in life. If you want to be successful – whether you’re gay or straight – you’ve got to go to school and work hard. Study and be educated. It’s all about how much effort you put in your work and career. My career is my life.
Do you have time for a love life while building an empire?
(Laughs) Currently there is no one in my life. I wouldn’t say that it’s by choice, I’m just forever working – last night I finished at 11 at night with a client. I live a very happy and comfortable life and I’m very excited by it, but my love life is non-existent. If I had to meet someone it would have be someone that understands that I have a very hectic life. My career comes first, and that person would have to understand that. I do believe that one day I will be in a stable relationship…
But not right now…
No, not right now… (Laughs)