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September of 2012 would see a Vosloorus-born and bred kindled spirit blaze his way halfway across the world to become the first South African designer to form part of the main New York Fashion Week programme. His history-making is among the latest in a long list of achievements, including winning the Arise Africa Fashion Award for Fashion Designer of the Year and the rare opportunity of being selected along with three other local designers to showcase their work at 2007 Paris Fashion Week. After nearly 10 years in his line of work, David Tlale continues to alter from being among the most prolific fashion designers in the country who’s well on his way to becoming globally renowned, affirming that he is a fine cut from a regal cloth!
“Hi Mr. Tlale, I have arrived at Rosebank,” I confirm over the phone. “Yes Kabelo, I am at Tasha’s.” he responds with ease. “Great, see you soon.” That ease, I would find out, is the calm within a storm: he is just wrapping up on a meeting and after our engagement will be meeting up with DJ Zinhle -who made a brief and cheerful appearance during the interview. This rainy Summer’s day is a busy one for him but it’s typical, the price paid for attaining veteran status. I am shown the table that he has booked for us and it’s not long before I am joined by he who many deem as the greatest local designer of our time. A saucy chicken burger, some fries and carrot juice later, the conversation would centre around New York, the healthy competition with Gavin Rajah and Thula Sindi, keeping his personal life sacred, a fashionable God and a privelaged more into the other constructs of his “simple” life. By Kabelo Khanye.
Kabelo: Mr. Tlale, are you aware of your light?
David Tlale: My light?
DT: I’ve got many lights, which one?
K: [Laughs] Your influence. Being among those who lead the fashion baton in South Africa.
DT: I wouldn’t say it’s being aware of it but for me it’s doing what I love most. I appreciate it when people appreciate what I’m doing and for people to be really embracing what I do but I wouldn’t say it’s a light, I’m not a light bearer, I just do what I do.
K: Do you still think about New York [Fashion Week]?
DT: I’m done with it, I’m already onto the next season which is my fall collection in February 2013 so September is done and dusted and although I still have memories about it, it’s not something I dwell upon big time.
K: Ok, so the history that you made by being there …
DT: It was really great. It’s humbling to know that you’re the first South African to showcase solo, so it was great.
K: And how did it feel to have Fern Mallis in the audience?
DT: It was pure affirmation that a new kid has landed on the block, in New York, all the way from South Africa and the world is paying attention. To get good comments from her … it was mind blowing.
K: Did you feel fully satisfied after showcasing your work?
DT: I believe I am a typical artist, I am never satisfied.
K: You’ve mentioned that the late the late Alexander McQueen and Jean-Paul Gaultier are among your inspirations, is the reality of becoming a global fashion icon more vivid for you, more especially after the international steps you have taken?
DT: It is, it’s becoming clearer and I would say that I am slowly realizing that I can do it, not only through my strength but through God’s strength and power and ability I am able to achieve it. The fact that they did it means that David Tlale can do it.
K: Another international milestone for you was debuting your work in France, at Paris Fashion Week. I had read somewhere that Gavin Rajah had helped you to do that. How is the relationship between you and other formidable designers like Gavin Rajah and Thula Sindi?
DT: In 2007 Gavin Rajah was the convener and Dr. Precious Moloi Motsepe helped us to get there by sponsoring the whole thing with The Department of Arts and Culture and really making it happen for us. The older generation of designers always wanted to create animosity amongst themselves but the new generation, I don’t have a problem with other designers and I don’t believe we are competing. If we are competing, this means I should be having over a million clients and we don’t even have a million clients. If I do well in couture, Thula Sindi does well in ready-to-wear and I know that Suzanne Haynes does really well in very conceptual clothing and even with the likes of Stone Cherry that does well with African attires, so we’ve got to be able to help one another. We know that [House of] Ole does well with men’s wear, so there’s no need for me to be competing with anyone but it is very important for me to excel in what I do and so should all the other designers. We are not here to fight and to take each other’s business, we are here to run the business and to promote fashion in South Africa.
K: And do you feel that you make each other better? If you see Thula Sindi doing really well, does that inspire you to do really well?
DT: It does …
K: Like a healthy competition of sorts …
DT: It is a healthy competition and a healthy environment. You know overseas the clients mix it up: Gucci, Prada, Versace … So if I see my client wearing another designer’s work, there’s no need to be jealous because it’s all about servicing the client.
K: Your brand is very distinct: formidable and for those with a taste for the finer things in life. What have been the challenges in trying to maintain the regal quality of your brand?
DT: The challenges are having to make sure that the team that I work with understands what I want, giving quality that is impeccable at all costs. It just doesn’t happen overnight, you also can’t give people the same thing over and over again. Keep trying new things because if you’re stagnant in the signature that you’re doing, people easily walk away because they are always wanting something new and something fresh.
K: And do you find that it’s challenging to top yourself?
DT: It’s not so much topping myself as much as it is improving and sharpening my skill and my ability, ensuring that what I put out there is far better than what I did the last season.
K: For many people, fashion is a very trivial thing and does not speak to the greater concerns of society. According to you, why is fashion so vital?
DT: Fashion is everything, whether it’s seen as fashion or as clothing. First of all, you wouldn’t have left the house having not put your outfit together, so fashion is important because someone had to sit and decide what you’re going to wear today. To me, fashion is my life: I live, I walk, I do fashion everyday so I don’t see myself doing anything else with my life …
DT: This is it.
K: And you figure that even in twenty-years time, this is what you’re going to be doing?
DT: I don’t know. Today, that’s all I know. Tomorrow, I don’t know. I may wake up tomorrow wanting to be something else but all I know is that today, now, is all I do.
K: I like that in the beginning you started studying Internal Auditing and you knew that this is not what you’re meant to be doing. What informed that bold decision to take a leap and leave something more stable for something that isn’t relatively so?
DT: I know and believe that I am not scared of challenges. When I decided to leave Internal Auditing, everyone was against me and that was a confirmation that leaving was what I had to do because the vision that I had had never been done. When I walked into the fashion class from day one, I knew that this is what I wanted to do and I did it.
K: A lot of people will go and study fashion but they don’t end up where they dreamed to have been. From that day you started to study fashion, did you know that you would be David Tlale [as we know him today]?
DT: [Laughs] All I knew was that I am creative but I didn’t know that I would one day be sitting here and talking to you. I don’t plan things; I believe things are going to happen. God knew that one day I would be here at Tasha’s talking to you because it’s part of the plan …
K: So what I’m understanding is that you have a strong sense of surrendering?
DT: That’s all I do. I’ll tell you a simple example: when I started doing this business in 2003, I ran it according to my business plan and nothing worked! Until I took that business plan and threw it away, I started taking each day as it came and things started changing. It’s good to have plans and aspirations but at the end of the day it’s very important to let go and let God be.
K: Your personal life is hardly in the tabloids. Is this a conscious decision on your part?
DT: My job is my personal life, I mean what else do I do besides my work. I protect my personal life whole-heartedly because I don’t think I need to be flashing out my life-style or my family. As I leave my studio, driving into my yard it means I have stopped working and whatever happens in my house is sacred. The world needs to know about David Tlale the designer and the business-person and that’s it.
K: Why do you think it is so important to keep your personal life to yourself?
DT: When you over-expose yourself, there’s no drawing line for the media. They will feel like they can walk all over you, talk about your personal life and basically it’s as though you’re walking naked in public.
K: You’re passionate about God. What does He mean to you?
DT: I know this is going to sound wrong but God does not mean anything but God is everything to me. He is my life, He is my substance, everything that I am and everything that I hope to be is all because of Him. He gives me a reason to live and to continue. As I was growing, as I am still growing up, there have been difficult times in my life when I had no one to sustain me but God and His grace has been super sufficient and efficient. There were times when I thought that I’d never be able to continue with life but because of God’s grace, God’s word, God’s guidance, I am able to face tomorrow, I am able to face today and it’s not that my life is complete now but because God has me in His hands and in His heart, I am able to continue. People go, ‘oh is it a new thing that people go on about God …’
K: [Laughs] Is God fashionable?
DT: [Laughs] ‘Is God fashionable?’ and yes God is fashionable but He’s been fashionable before the beginning of time and it’s just people who never understood the secret of being in God’s presence. I’m not saying I’m perfect …
K: Yeah but you better …
DT: I’m far better, I know better, I feel better, I feel very content that I have God in my life and even when life’s journey is taking me through turns and toils, I am able to continue because there is a power that is beyond man’s understanding, man’s ability to call you and comfort you and tell you I love you and it’s going to be ok. God’s power is beyond that. It’s an immediate reaction, when He says “I will never leave you nor forsake you” and He goes, “when you go through the fire, I will be with you” and He’s not like your friend who’s going to leave you once they feel the heat but God is there with you through thick and thin.
K: It’s interesting how you say you went through difficult times and that brought you closer to God because I think there are a lot of people who become more distant from God in such times. What defining point made God personal in your life?
DT: When I accepted Jesus as my lord and savior in 1991, my life completely changed …
K: Did you grow up a Christian?
DT: I come from Christian background, in a Christian family and I was going to church but it was just like the normal thing to do and it was nice to do it but until I had that personal encounter with Christ, my life was changed. I had to change the way I think, the way I do things, the way I behave because it’s no longer me who lives, I have Christ in me. When I walk, people should see Christ, when I speak, people should see Christ and many times people might say ‘you don’t look like a Christian’ and my response is ‘what does a Christian look like?’ My heart, my mind, my soul is being changed because my flesh does not get born-again but my spirit, my mind, my all becomes transformed. I don’t have to look a particular way to be spiritually accepted because a relationship with God is personal as we may all go to church, we may all go and fellowship but the one thing that matters is when I have an encounter with God. If we go to church and to home-cell, it doesn’t mean that we are all saved, that we all live right, it’s what you do when everyone is away.
K: This reminds me of the verse that says ‘when people see my work, they should give all glory to God.’
DT: Yes, everything that I do, everything that I have ever achieved is due to God. I’m only a vessel.
K: How do you go about dealing with the pride aspect of your fame? How do you keep your ego in check?
DT: When you pay attention to what has made you to be great, you forget about ego. A simple scripture says “humble yourself in the eyes of the Lord and He will lift you up” and so the moment I start lifting myself up, that’s the moment I’m going to go down. The moment I focus on God, I am able to realize that there’s a bigger picture. There’s no time to go around telling people who you are, you are supposed to be working and perfecting what you’re doing and making sure that you become a better person.
K: Yeah because I’ve heard that once you realize what you’re purpose is, you realize that there really is no time to procrastinate. One should use all that time to perfect their work and alter their self. As an unpredictable fashion designer, what might people be surprised to learn about you?
DT: That I’m the simplest person under the sun.
K: Simple in terms of?
DT: I love simple food, I love dining, having people around, I love going to church and I love to worship God. I love going home and just being a child to my mother.
K: How does your family react to your success?
DT: One thing that I love about my families is that you come and you become that mamma’s boy and that’s it. It’s all good when they appreciate what I have done and do for a living but when we come together, it’s not a brand meeting, it’s family members: my brother, my sisters, my mother, my nieces and nephews, we are there having a good time, having a family moment.
DT: So much. Next year I’m celebrating my 10th year anniversary in the industry and it’s also a thanksgiving to God: for everything that He’s done for us. We are working on our New York Fashion Week fall collection 2013 and we’ll be showcasing at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg. We are getting into accessories, we are getting into children’s range, furniture … there’s so much to do.
K: In the midst of all of that progression, how do you attain balance? Do you sleep?
DT: [Laughs] I do sleep, 4 or 5 hours. My staff, they know by now that my song is ‘oh, I’m so tired’ but do I ever take a holiday? No. When I take a holiday, I’ll be there for two days and on the third day I’ll start working.
K: Do you ever have time to reflect on your success?
DT: No I don’t have time for that. Yes it’s good to count your blessings but I don’t want to focus on them because I don’t want to miss out on the next best thing.
K: What legacy would you love to leave behind?
DT: Everything under the sun comes from God. Fame, fortune, wealth, it comes and goes. We must realize that we’re here for a purpose and we’ve been given this opportunity to show that we can be great stewards. We are not here forever and when you die, what do you want people to say about you?
K: What do you want people to say about you?
DT: I don’t know and for me it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, it’s all about God’s glory.
K: What is the one truth that you hold onto?
DT: The one truth that I hold onto [laughs] … there’s so many truths that I hold onto. The one thing that gives me courage and keeps me going is based in the word of God, when He says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I started from nowhere, with my mother who was a domestic worker and runs a day-care center even today. I had no backing, all I had was God and my faith and my passion and 18 years later, I am still standing and still dependent on God for my life. Yes there are challenges but I see God sustaining, that is the only truth that I know, that God is real.