The man maketh the shirt
Mandela forged personal relationships with designers behind his distinctive sartorial style
THERE were many unique things about Nelson Mandela.
His style of leadership stood out, as did his sense of humour. His dance style was like none other, and his endless work ethic was admirable.
But one distinctive feature that couldn’t be missed about the former president was his vibrant shirts.
Whether he was at home or making a public appearance, Madiba was always seen clad in the most unique shirts.
But what most people don’t know is that he didn’t wear them to make a fashion statement, but rather for health reasons.
“Tata wore these shirts because suits were becoming too heavy for his body,” Sonwabile Ndamase, the creator of the famous Madiba shirt, explains. “The shirts he wore were nice and light for his body, and he felt very comfortable in them.”
Ndamase, who designed shirts for Mandela since 1994, said it was a huge honour.
“Tata was not a client of mine, but rather a father to me. The entire Mandela family were not clients to me, but rather family.”
Ndamase, who owns Vukani Fashions, said this week he was still struggling to come to terms with Mandela’s death.
“We all knew that it was going to happen one day, but that doesn’t make it any less sad,” he said.
Ndamase first met Mandela a few months after he had been released from prison. He had known the Mandela family very well, even before that.
“I knew Mama Winnie quite well so I was fortunate to get to know the whole family.”
When Mandela left prison, Ndamase was invited to his house to have lunch with the family and recalls being “so nervous I tripped on the staircase”.
He took the opportunity to show Mandela some of his designs. Fortunately Mandela fell in love with them, and Ndamase became Mandela’s full-time designer.
“I would show him a line of different shirts and Tata would choose the ones he preferred.”
Ndamase said that since Mandela’s death last week, he had received more orders for Madiba shirts from around the world.
“Last week the musician Maxwell even ordered Madiba shirts for himself and his entire crew.”
Ndamase said he would continue with his Madiba shirt line, even though Madiba is now gone.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“We need to continue his legacy and one of his legacies was the shirts he wore.”
Meanwhile, fashion designer David Tlale, known for bright colours and bold African prints, says he is able today to express himself with pride thanks to Mandela, who inspired him in a “massive way”.
After the inauguration, he explained, it became more and more acceptable for African prints and designs to get their chance in the limelight.
“People started wearing African chic with pride. Then after we saw him changing from a suit to a Madiba shirt, we started embracing African fashion in a big way.
“Our president came out and addressed nations in a beautifully tailored shirt. He brought change to the face of being formal in a semi-formal way.”
Consciously or not, people started to notice African fashion, which Tlale described as: “We don’t see colour when we do fashion – we just do fashion”.
He continued: “If you love it you buy it, and you buy it because you love it. That’s what Madiba did. When you see a piece you’re not going to ask who designed it or what their race was. You are going to buy a beautifully made garment.”
Tlale paid tribute to Madiba last Friday during his “fashion extravaganza” at Virginia Airport in Durban, which showcased designs from his showcase at New York Fashion Week, along with new designs, on the runway.
It was not originally intended to commemorate Madiba, but Tlale says he woke up on Friday morning and knew he needed to pay tribute somehow.
Locally, sales of the Madiba shirt are also on the rise.
Nisa Bregg, manager of Out of Africa at the V&A Waterfront, said the shirts, many from Desré Buirski’s The Presidential Shirt, sell really well.
“At one point we didn’t stock them, but people came in and asked for them all the time.”
Just last weekend they sold eight shirts to people who wanted something that made them think of Mandela. Bregg said eight shirts might not sound like much, but considering they cost between R950 and R1 700 each, that was healthy trade.
Fiona Adams, sales assistant at Thomas & Benno, also at the V&A, agreed that the Presidential Shirt is a good seller that’s always been popular.
“A lot of people ask for them,” she said.
WELL GROOMED: Nelson Mandela in one of his famous shirts.
PRESIDENTIAL: Madiba shirts by Desre Buirski’s official Presidential Shirt brand, for sale at Out of Africa at the V&A Waterfront.
MADIBA SHIRTS: Designer Sonwabile Ndamase with his famous Madiba shirts.