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Paths Less Trodden is brought to you by Tshepo, this week’s interviewee, and one of South Africa’s most exciting and sought after fashion brands.
Tshepo Mohlala’s story, values and life philosophy are a perfect match for everything that I am striving to show in this newsletter. From the most humble beginnings, Tshepo (meaning hope), the self-taught stylist and designer, has built his business from the ground up, and is recognised as one of South Africa’s hippest denim brands.
He is a born fighter and entrepreneur of the best kind. Follow his rise to international stardom on Twitter and Instagram. Or follow the celebrities and taste makers who love him by checking out the beautiful Presidential Slim Fit jeans here.
Hi friends 😀,
This week, I talked to Tshepo Mohlala, the eponymous founder of the denim brand Tshepo in South Africa. As some of you may have noticed, Tshepo is also the sponsor of this Paths Less Trodden interview series.
Tshepo’s story of entrepreneurship against the odds is inspiring. Moreover, he is creating beautiful clothing which the fashion world is paying attention to. I always encourage you to share this newsletter, but I double encourage you this time so we can collectively start to spread the word about Tshepo and get his clothing line to the UK soonest!
You’ll notice below that Tshepo’s voice is dominant, and that’s quite deliberate. He speaks so eloquently and his story is so compelling that it made sense to lend him my canvas.
If it’s ok for Meghan Markle, it’s ok for me
“I get a call from the British Embassy and this guy with a heavy English accent says: ‘The princess is coming to South Africa and she wants to wear your jeans.’ And I was like, who's the princess? Meghan Markle? (Tweet this) Okay, cool, send me her sizes and then I'll send you an invoice. I didn't know who they're talking about. So I call my sister. I'm like, who's Megan Markle. She starts screaming.”
Victoria Yards is situated in Lorentzville, way south of the smart Johannesburg districts of Sandton, Illovo and Rosebank. First timers visiting from the more salubrious precincts often refresh the car SatNav a couple of times en route, anxious that there’s been some terrible mistake.
Lorentzville is shabby, downtrodden and not particularly safe to wander around, but within in it lies an oasis of calm, creativity and construction; a community and ecosystem which blends social development and commercial enterprise. Derelict five years ago, Vic Yards is now a thriving, sizzling maze of artisan studios, art galleries and event spaces interwoven with urban agriculture where teams grow seasonal fruits and vegetables. Right across the road is the Nando’s Central Kitchen, the operational heartbeat of the global restaurant chain and closely associated with the Yard complex. It is both deliberate and typical of Nando’s to set up shop on a path very less trodden.
And it is in this environment at Victoria Yards that Tshepo Mohlala has set up his shop selling premium (or affordably luxurious if you prefer) jeans and accessories. When Meghan and Harry visited South Africa in 2019, she wanted to pop by. Tshepo relives the moment: “It was a beautiful thing. I don't even remember what I said to her, our conversation just went by so quick. But I remember when she walked into the studio, I introduced her to the whole team. And I gave her something for Archie and remember her running across the shop with these little jeans, and she was so happy. And that showed me the pure love of a mother. It was so unbelievable. If you think about someone’s kid, then you've touched their heart. They posted a picture on social media, I posted it and boom, it's on CNN. It's everywhere. Everybody's talking about it. It taught me that all these moments, these small pockets are legitimising our brand, helping us narrate our story even better.” When lockdown came soon after, royalty was a distant memory and the business was quickly fighting hard. Still, it’s a moment of glamour worth framing for the boy who grew up in the township of Tsakane, once a designated area under Apartheid policy, with his mother and grandparents.
“Tsakane is in the far East of Johannesburg, a dusty, dangerous place, a place with no hope.”
Big life influences
Tshepo’s parents separated when he was seven years old. His mother was a domestic worker leaving the house at 4am and returning at 9pm, and so his big influences were his grandmother, then and still now a pastor, his construction worker grandfather and his aunt. The triumvirate shaped him. His granny showed him the power of storytelling. “You know, she is a pastor. Every time she jumps on stage and shares a message, she uses storytelling to spread a message of hope. She has this one song that she sings and the whole church rises up in unison, in one spirit, as one person. And everybody sings along. It was amazing how she could captivate people consistently by just storytelling, and I wanted to be like her.”
His grandfather taught him craftsmanship. “He taught me that with your hands, you can do anything. And every time when I look at my hands, I am so grateful that I can make things with my hands; that I can change lives with my own two hands.”
His aunt gave him possibility. “She was the first person in our neighbourhood to go to varsity. Back in the early 2000s, if you loved hip hop and RnB, denim was such a big thing. And she brought all the fashion that I used to see on TV back home. And for me, that was the coolest thing ever that somebody could ever do, it's magic, and that inspired me to also think big and leave where I am to see what other people are doing in this world.”
While his mother was physically absent for work, she still raised her son, and she, along with aunt and granny, are immortalised in the Tshepo brand logo; each a point on the red crown, their legacies shared with every customer.
“They are the pillars of my brand and of my life. These are people who inspired the type of man I am today. It is always a reminder that you are king but a king is not only made by himself, but is made by people. When I give jeans to somebody else, I'm saying just wear your crown, celebrate who you are, own who you are and become a better version of yourself. Whatever you think, just do it; if Tshepo can do it from zero, you can do far better and that's what the crown represents. It represents go getters, people with intuition, people who are confident in themselves.”
Tshepo was ambitious but shy and reflective from a young age. “Every time when I watched TV, I saw everybody who was making it. And I thought what I see around me isn't reality or isn't my reality, I'm not supposed to be here. One day, I'm going to be like them on TV, I'm going to build something great. And I'm going to travel the world. Growing up, I was lucky that my granny didn't want us to play in the streets like everybody else. So I had more time to myself, I had time to think, I had time to daydream a lot.”
He learned business the hard way in the classroom. His mother gave him money to buy sweets which he quickly sold on. “Within two weeks, the business grew so fast, I moved from selling just small sweets to lollipops, and I started giving away stuff on credit, and then I had to liquidate.”
“I told my family that I want to be a fashion designer. And I remember it was one of the worst things I've ever said to them.”
Beyond school, Tshepo’s path to textiles and design was non-linear. He started at film school where his curiosity got the better of his religious Christian upbringing and judgemental outside view. The new milieu exposed him to a world of different thinkers but soon enough men of the cloth were leading him astray once more. “I was googling new fabrics and the fashion industry. What was John Galliano doing, who was this guy Karl Lagerfeld?”
“I've seen something big. And the vision that I have is huge. And I'm going to show it to you.”
A man can leave the church, but the church never leaves a man. Despite his family’s concerns, Tshepo walked away from film and straight onto a new set. But joining the fashion set was not straightforward and he dropped out after the first year due to financial difficulties. Family fear that Tshepo was destined for the garage to shorten trousers on a small sewing machine bubbled up.
In 2012, Tshepo got a break to intern at the House of Ole (fashion designer Ole Ledimo) from which he joined the emerging Afrikan Swiss brand to focus on denim. This brought notoriety and a store in downtown Johannesburg. Tshepo’s own profile was growing, partner rift followed in 2015 and so he walked from the business with nothing. This was a low point: “They literally took the clothes off my back and I had to start from scratch.”
“Hungry, broken, depressed, I told myself I'm not going back home, and I will find my purpose.”
Tshepo’s words have parabolic resonance. While his mother would no doubt say ‘he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’, Tshepo has clear vision and a muscular determination which magnetizes people towards him. He has been aware of his uncommon influence from a young age: “Growing up in the church, in a pastor's home, the whole community looks at you all the time, all the things that you do. Everybody has always been watching us and I've been trained publicly to be careful of my influence. Once upon a time I used to smoke, and heavily, and I realised that everybody around me started smoking, and heavily, so then I woke up one morning, I said I'm stopping this, I stopped and everybody around me stopped smoking. So I am extremely mindful of my influence.”
Tshepo the Jean Maker
After Afrikan Swiss, Tshepo the Jean Maker’s Instagram handle already had over 1,000 followers and so while the future was vague, Tshepo’s profile was a cutting block to build on.
“I started tweeting something big is coming something big is coming on my Instagram, on my Facebook, on my WhatsApp; every day I used to say something big is coming.”
Behind the bravado was a broke man leaning on an ZAR8,000 (£400) loan from a girlfriend to make something big happen. “I got a roll of fabric and started a range of jeans and called them the Presidential Fit. It was just 100 pairs of jeans that I started with and put them out on social media and people started to share what I'm doing, a pair of jeans with just Tshepo on the back embroidered. It took me over six months to actually sell those jeans but a lot more people were starting to talk about it.” Tshepo the Jean Maker was up and running again.
The power of denim as a canvas to tell stories
I was curious to understand why denim is Tshepo’s fashion hero and what it sparks in his imagination. Of course, it goes back to telling stories, an artist with their canvas. As Nelson Makamo, one of South Africa’s biggest contemporary artists, uses his canvas to tell stories about young children, Tshepo finds denim his cloth to talk to everyman. “When I decided I really want to be in fashion, I looked at what fabric has more purpose, what fabric tells more stories and what fabric relates to more people. And I found two, denim and leather. These are fabrics that have stood the test of time, fabrics with deep history. Indigo dye was one of the things that led to slavery routes in Africa, the indigo rush. The deeper you dig, the more interesting stories you find. That's what I love when you buy a pair of jeans, whether you’re sitting in an office all day or you’re a car mechanic with oil on your knees, you are starting your own story, you are buying a blank canvas. I think it has been a path less travelled. There aren't a lot of designers in SA who are into denim and I also saw that as an opportunity for me to exploit; to tell the story of who I am and inspire other people around the world.”
Big stars perform wearing Tshepo
Great start-ups are built on small, rabid, cultish followings and as more stores carried the Presidential Slim Fit, so momentum built. Seeking to surf the wave and share a feel-good story was Mercedes Benz who as Tshepo says ‘wanted to support this young man building something unbelievable who will probably be the diesel of our country.’ Or ‘this guy is electric’ said Mercedes PR immediately.
In 2018, songwriter and rapper Cassper Nyovest, one of South Africa’s most influential artists, preceded Beyonce and Jay Z on stage at the Global Citizen Festival wearing bespoke Tshepo attire and the story went viral. Last year Tshepo opened his first store beyond the Victoria Yards workshop in the Hyde Park retail area (not the London one!) which has allowed the brand to shift further to ‘ready to wear’ and so expand the range beyond jeans to T-shirts, the super cool bucket hat and not forgetting the must-have Tshepo denim COVID face mask. Growth is steady rather than explosive, which for a fireball entrepreneur can be frustrating, but Tshepo also recognises the value of the roots he’s planting: “We’re building a cult following as opposed to just selling to masses; the people who buy from us believe in the vision, believe in our story and love our product.” Along with fellow designers like Thebe Magugu, Laduma Ngxokolothe’s Maxhosa brand or Sowetan brand Thesis, Tshepo is catalysing a reassessment of local South African artisanship. “More people want to support, have at least one or two items in their wardrobe from a local designer or manufacturer. That will really propel us forward post-pandemic.”
Hope for the future
Indeed, this recent reappraisal is crucial to rebuilding the South African economy and, for Tshepo, supersedes catwalk fame. He wants young graduates to think big like him. This is an inspiring if nebulous goal, but Tshepo channels his hunger into building and training his team. “In October 2019, we brought the Amsterdam Jean School to Joburg to spend time with my tailors and teach them how to make the best pair of jeans in the world from South Africa. We need to train our own people and those in our community. When you give somebody a skill, you have somebody for life, and you've given them food for life. They want to be part of this growth, of this world class brand on a daily basis, they treat it like it's their baby, and is has changed their life. It has changed my life. It has changed everybody's lives around us.”
Tshepo means hope in the Sesotho language. “It has become a symbol of hope in my family. When they named me Tshepo, they didn't know that they were actually speaking to themselves. They were saying that they have hope in me. And I've become that hope in my family, in my community, inspiring the nation now, and probably in the next couple of years will be inspiring the world.”
The Victoria Yards community is a perfect petri dish for original ideas and enterprise to flourish. “It helps me push even harder, to want to truly be the best version of myself. The principles that Victoria Yards was founded on speak to the type of person that I am. 60% of the ladies who work in our atelier walk to work and their money is their money, they have medical insurance, they have UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund]. As a business owner growing up, when I saw my Mum couldn't come back home early because of travelling up and down, I said to myself, I'll never make another person go through that same drama, never create another angry Tshepo growing up.” To note, Tshepo’s mother got a degree in 2019 aged 53 and started working last year as a teacher.
“Taking care of the community is something that really has a deeper meaning in my life, and that has also impacted how I approach business; everything that I do needs to change somebody's life. And with collaboration with the Brozins, we've managed to touch so many people's lives in a short period of time.”
Robbie Brozin, founder of Nando’s, and with his son Jonti, are Tshepo’s principal backers and partners in this project, a symbiotic, values based relationship if ever there was one. Both peri-peri chicken and jeans continue to change lives from both sides of the Victoria Road, Lorentzville.
What's the kindest thing anyone's ever done for you?
“It's someone seeing my pain and responding to it without me saying anything. And not only one person but a lot of people who just saw my pain, and did what had to be done at that moment, and really changed my life. I've received so much favour from so many different people. I received that from a friend when my business wasn't doing well who paid my rent in the atelier for two months without wanting anything in return.”
What’s your most powerful memory?
“When we opened our store in Hyde Park. We had the rabbi there who said a few words, and my granny, who's a pastor. And everybody believes in God, you know, a Jewish boy and a Christian boy, working together to build a world class brand, for me was one of my most powerful moments to experience; these two different people in one space, who have one vision to build one thing together. That's one of my most powerful moments. I had to take it back and say, oh my God, did that just happen?”
Tell us something interesting about yourself most people don’t know
“I am a very loud person. I am extremely, extremely loud. But only with people who I feel comfortable with.”
“I love eggs a lot. I like them medium done, scrambled, boiled; in all possible ways. You give me an egg? I’ll take it at any moment!”
Which book do you gift most regularly?
“One book that I read when I was 16 is called Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. That book really told so many stories about different entrepreneurs and how they just thought about things and had the guts to do it. So I always recommend that book to young artists, and a recent book that I started giving now is Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon.”
What's your desert island music?
“I listen to everything, literally everything. I love soft rock like Coldplay. I listen to a lot of hip hop music. I’m listening to a lot of piano lately. And a bit of RnB.”
Winding down away from work
“I love exploring different things. So recently, I got into surfing. And I just fell in love with surfing, and horse riding. And yeah, I love trying out new experiences and new spaces and just seeing what life has to offer.”
Where can we find out more about you?
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