Madiba shirt designer has developed taste for success
MOST craftsmen strive for perfection and this certainly applies to prolific designer Sonwabile Ndamase, the man who designed some of Madiba’s iconic and chic shirts.
So in tune with his craft is Ndamase that it’s been hard for his critics to fault him.
“Like a cook tastes his food, I do the same with my fabrics. I use my tongue to taste every piece of cloth. It’s my way of ensuring what my customers wear is genuine. Every seam, stitch and pattern has to be perfect,” he said this week as he prepared for the 21st Vukani! Fashion Awards and exhibition in Gauteng from Monday to Friday.
The theme is “The enlightened ones: guardians of ubuntu”.
The awards, which Ndamase established at the dawn of democracy, provide an annual platform for aspiring designers to showcase their talent.
It has been the launchpad for such seasoned designers as Mthatha and David Tlale, as well as up-and-coming stars like Mosa Mokuena.
Ndamase grew up with needles, thread and a sewing machine in Libode, near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.
“uMama (my mother) was a seamstress. I watched her all the time. I was always the one holding a needle and thread, mending my brothers’ pants and my sister’s dresses.”
Ndamase acknowledges it was awkward for a Xhosa boy, who was expected to be herding cows, to be fixing clothes. He was called a “sissy”. But the awkwardness, the criticism and the ribbing helped keep him resilient.
It was, of course, a career highlight when he was asked to create shirts for Mandela. He was well established and designing clothes for Mandela’s daughter Zindzi and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
“The Madiba shirt concept was influenced by Tata’s history. It was thought he needed something that could flow with his body and which was chic and Afrocentric, something that blended with the whole world.”
Ndamase said he laughed whenever he recalled his reaction when asked to make his first shirt for Mandela. “I felt like a kid in a candy store… it has been heartwarming to know that throughout the years that I made shirts for Tata he embraced everything I presented to him.”
Ndamase is encouraged when young people incorporate African prints in their everyday fashion. “We are not there yet (in terms of African design) but there is effort and I believe we will get there.”
His advice for aspiring designers was: “Be yourself. I tell people never to do something to please other people. You work twice as hard if you focus on yourself rather than on what other people want.”
HARD AT WORK: Sonwabile Ndamase with one of his shirts at his home in Kew, Joburg.
DESIGNER: Ndamase with Nelson Mandela.