ART AND SOUL
Brian Mokhachane is on a mission to build an empire. But as the brains (and heart) behind the Soulart Foundation – a social enterprise which creates coveted design items out of found materials – he’s determined to make those around him rise too.
Kulwane Mohapi is ironing an unfinished black coat. As he expertly presses a seam, he talks about what it was like to grow up poor in Soweto, a place where his hunger for creativity wasn’t simply disregarded or discouraged but actively denigrated. He talks about how he used to pore over fashion magazines at Exclusive Books, dreaming of seeing his own designs featured on the cover, and how he used to take apart old clothes so that he could see how they were constructed.
And now he stands, a tape measure slung loosely around his neck, well on his way to seeing his ambitions realised. All thanks to his selection as part of the 10-member team Mokhachane employs to design and sew the backpacks and clothing that are snapped up by eager tourists and locals alike at Johannesburg and Cape Town’s fashion-forward markets, gifted proudly by corporates, and sold as a tribute to African flair in Amsterdam and London.
Not that any of this has come without a fight. Mokhachane may well be a shrewd entrepreneur – he credits his business acumen to the two years he spent as a tour operator, a career his parents insisted he study so that he would have something to fall back on. But he is, and always has been, an artist at heart. “My mother was a domestic worker, and her employers’ daughter was an artist. She used to send paints and brushes home with my mom, and I couldn’t wait to get home from school so that I could start creating,” he recalls.
It was a passion that never left him. When the buzz around Soweto before the FIFA 2010 World Cup turned to how entrepreneurs could make money from the event, he immediately thought about how he could use his artistic skills. There was no doubt that he had the ability – it was the budget that was a problem. Without funds for purchasing canvases, he instead used old newspapers to create papier mâché art and discarded office files to make journals, drawing on a resourcefulness that had been cultivated during his youth when cars made out of wire hangers made a substitute for expensive toys.
Of course, the boom times following the World Cup couldn’t last, so Mokhachane found himself looking for new ways to
make money from his talent. Fascinated by the process of manufacturing, he bought a sewing machine and taught himself the art of tailoring, wearing his own designs to gauge demand – which, as it turned out, was significant. Not convinced that it would make economic sense to start a clothing line, Mokhachane instead started creating the backpacks which have become Soulart Foundation’s trademark.
It was his involvement with Red Bull Amaphiko, a platform for social entrepreneurs, which allowed him to take the business to the next level.The programme acted as a catalyst, enabling him to take part in various projects which, in turn, helped him to hone his vision for the Soulart Foundation. He also received a boost when the brand was featured as part of Design Indaba’s Emerging Creatives, giving him exposure to an international audience.
Leveraging these developments, his first step was to create his dream team of people whose values resonated with his own. These include passion because, he says, when you haven’t made a sale in two weeks, the only thing that’s going to keep you going is your love for what you’re doing. He also values perseverance, and the refusal to accept the constraints of your current reality.
These qualities have seen Soulart Foundation grow and grow – but Mokhachane isn’t satisfied just yet. He’s aiming to establish an open-air learning centre in Soweto where more young people can learn and share skills. “It’s about creating a legacy project, so that Soulart Foundation can continue to provide employment for years to come,” he explains. He’s currently in negotiations with the City of Johannesburg to obtain permission to establish the centre, but there’s plenty to keep him busy in the meantime. For instance, he’s investigating collaborations with other brands, and there are opportunities to be explored in New York and other international cities.
Mokhachane takes a pragmatic view. Although expansion is most certainly on the cards, he’s determined to build capacity and ensure that all Soulart Foundation products are of the finest quality before he takes the next step. But take it, he will. “South Africa is not big enough for us!” he quips – although beneath the humour, he’s serious about taking the brand further.
He’s also serious about making sure that all those around him benefit from the brand. “I believe that my art was given to me by a higher power.The idea is simply being expressed through me. Because I have this gift, I need to contribute, to uplift my little corner by transferring skills to as many people as possible. This is what I want to be remembered for.”