The world of fashion is absolutely benefiting from up-and-coming fashion designers in Africa. 33-year-old fashion designer, Thabo Makhetha-Kwinana, shares the success stories of what made Thabo Makhetha a global brand with African Vibes. We enjoyed talking to her and we believe you will too. Hopefully, this story will serve as an inspiration to aspiring designers to aim for the global stage. Obviously, there is no height you cannot reach as long as you set your mind towards it.
Who is Thabo Makhetha-Kwinana?
I’m a fashion designer, wife, and mother of two boys. I was born in Lesotho, but my family left when I was three years old and I’ve lived across South Africa; Johannesburg, Mafikeng, KwaZulu-Natal, Port Elizabeth, and now, Cape Town. South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in the world and being exposed to the different communities gave me an appreciation for culture and heritage.
I studied Fashion Design at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and started my business in 2009 the year after my graduation. Things really kicked off with Durban July, back in 2013, the theme for the event was royalty. I designed the “Rose Coat” inspired by my heritage and made from the Basotho blankets. It was such a hit at the event, people were asking for my number and I even won the Best Dressed award. And really, that was one of the big pushes in terms of working with the Basotho blankets.
The other big break came when Jackie Burger, then editor of Elle, bought one of my capes at Design Indaba and wore it to the Louis Vuitton show in Paris, France. She was seated front-row and even wrote an editor’s article about the event, the cape she wore, and how it drew so much attention. It was a real honor. Those are basically the two catalysts that pushed the brand forward.
How did you get into fashion, and what are your motivations and training?
Honestly, it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. My Grandmother was a seamstress and so some of that came from her. When I was a kid, I would make clothes for my dolls and when whilst I was still in school, my mom bought me my first sewing machine. In high school, I’d sketch and sew dresses for the dances I went to. So even before I went to study fashion, I was already designing.
My biggest motivation is that this is my passion and purpose. If I wasn’t creating, I don’t know what else I’d be doing. I’ve always grown up knowing that I’ve got a talent and it’s got to do with my hands. I also paint and create artworks in my spare time so one can say it comes naturally.
So, tell us more about your brand and when it was launched
The brand was launched in 2009, I had ambitions of interning in Europe, but the Global Financial Crisis was unfolding so there were no opportunities. I started off fulfilling individual clients’ orders, basically dressmaking. It was great when clients came in, I could design something custom for them—which was always my preference.
My most iconic design would have to be the “Starburst Coat” it was voted the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa, by then Elle-editor, Ellie Gamabade. The “Rose Coat” that won best dressed at Durban July is another. My best selling item is the long cape, which Kefilwe Mabote wore and it just went viral. She looked brilliant in it, and it’s one of my favorite pieces to make.
What has been your biggest breakthrough so far? Have you participated in any runway events?
My runway debut was at Vancouver Fashion Week 2014, which was phenomenal considering I hadn’t yet shown in South Africa. Since then I’ve showcased on several occasions at South Africa Fashion Weeks, Cape Town Fashion Week and I’ve also showcased internationally in the UK, Italy, USA, and at the African Union in Addis Ababa.
My breakthrough has to be my Basotho blanket range for which my brand is mostly known and once again credit to events such as Design Indaba and people like Jackie Burger. I think having an influential fashion icon put their money down, invest in a brand, and use their influence to sell the brand makes the most impact.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered so far and how did you overcome them?
Honestly, up to date, I think my biggest challenge, not just with COVID-19 and being a Mother, was that I had quite hectic medical issues last year. I think my biggest lesson from that was, people called me a workaholic. I am just learning that you also need to rest because it can take its toll. It did, and everything came to a standstill. So, we’re still recovering from that, working backward from that. It’s also given me time to actually look at the business as a whole and reanalyze what it is that we are doing and if we’re doing it the best way we actually can.
What do you think about the African Fashion industry?
The African fashion industry, well, it depends which area and which region you’re in. I think it’s kind of unfair to try and box an entire continent’s fashion industry into one subtitle. When I look, we are making strides. Our fashion designers are often only recognized when they move overseas, which I don’t think is entirely correct. Big ups to people like Maxhosa Laduma doing his thing, in his brand, and he is still based in South Africa.
It would be wonderful to also see bigger names in films of Africans that still reside in Africa. Because I think it plays a lot and says a lot when you can achieve big things from your home country and export those creations that you make versus having to go outside of your home country and prove yourself there. Unfortunately, the country that takes the credit is typically the country that you live in.
Otherwise, the fashion industry as a whole is so creative. There are so many things that are still out there. It still has a lot of growth that needs to happen. And not just the fashion that you see, but also at the beginning in terms of the manufacturing, the processing of raw materials. For example, if you look at Lesotho, the wool comes from there, but it’s not processed there. They don’t even sell their own blankets. So, there’s a lot of things like that when you look at the chain that needs to still get developed and evolve. But I think, you know, people are hearing our voice, which is great.
Any expansion plans and where do you see your brand in five years?
I think I’m re-evaluating the brand. I do believe that we won’t just be about clothing in the future. There will be more aspects to the brand than that. And more than anything, it’s the storytelling. Not just about the clothes, or about my home country, Lesotho, but also teaching people about self-expression. Teaching people about taking pride in their identity, especially as an African. And the challenges we obviously come across. You know you look at the USA and what’s going on. You look at our own country’s history and some areas where we still live today, what’s going on. So I think for me, I want to be more about the community and the mentality, than just beautiful clothing and beautiful creations.
Advice for up-and-coming fashion designers?
Number one, don’t limit yourself to one thing. You are a creative, you can recreate and keep creating. Do not get trapped in the whole thing of, “Oh, that was my idea and so-and-so took it.” I’ve been down that road and there are no benefits trying to fight half of those battles. You have to keep one step ahead of the others all the time. Measure yourself against yourself, measure your success against what you did previously, and have fun, enjoy it, and balance.
Balance the work, balance the play and, balance the fun. If you have family, balance the family. You can’t just channel everything into one thing because you have to keep finding ways to fill yourself up again. And typically, you find that outside of the fashion, outside of the creativity, with family, with friends, with time off. So, that’s my advice to up-and-coming fashion designers and entrepreneurs already doing their thing.
For further information, please see Thabo Makheta-Kwinana’s Brand’s Website: Thabo Makhetha