GQ (South Africa)
Tshepo the Jeanmaker
We’ve all experienced the struggle of finding the elusive perfect pair of jeans, an enigma that meets our extensive list of requirements – enter Tshepo Mohlala, the local denim designer with a royal stamp of approval.
A former film student, he Abandoned filmmaking At Afda to study fashion design at the University of Johannesburg. Within two years, he was crowned King of Denim alongside his then-partners African Swiss at SA Fashion Week. In 2015 Mohlala launched his self-titled denim brand Tshepo Jeans and his first pair of crafted jeans, which he coined “The Presidential Fit”, kickstarting his career.
‘I started the brand with only 100 pairs of jeans, which took me six months to sell to becoming a global hit.
I’m really happy with the direction the brand is taking and we’ve become an authority in the South African denim culture. You aren’t allowed to talk denim, if you don’t talk about Tshepo Jeans,’ he laughs.
‘Making jeans is not easy, it’s a skill. I enjoy pattern making and cutting, because that’s the soul of every pair. If the pattern and fabric cutting is wrong the fit is compromised, and getting that fit right and seeing it in action is what I got into the business for. The most priceless feeling is seeing somebody wearing and appreciating something that we’ve created. It’s the feeling I keep chasing.’
Choosing to specialise in denim due to its distinctly nostalgic character is what guides much of his design process. ‘Denim has always been the fabric with purpose. It is understandable to many, loved by everyone and psychologically has an emotional connection to the owner. You are freer when wearing jeans than when wearing a 3-piece suit,’ he says.
A perfect fit happens between the ears, it’s an emotional buy. You could find the perfect fit but not the perfect pair. A perfect pair ticks all the boxes: the fabric, the fit, finish, and most importantly the emotional connection. For Tshepo Jeans, each and every pair of jeans and range they make tells a story.
His own story starts in a small township in the far east of Johannesburg, called Tsakane, where three strong women – who inspired him to be the man he is today – raised him. ‘My mother who taught me how to hustle, my grandmother, a masterful storyteller, whose words “Tshepo, you’re a gentleman and you always have to look like one” dance in my head as I get dressed every morning, and then there’s trendy aunt Takalani, who brought the fashion we used to see on TV to reality,’ he says.
‘Growing up in Tsakane wasn’t the best but thinking about it today, I had an amazing childhood. Though I come from a previously disadvantaged background and becoming Tshepo Jeans was not an easy process – from selling jeans out of my backpack, running away from landlords, going to bed with no food – it was the part of my journey that taught me to stay focussed and keep my eyes on the prize.’ »
He describes his own style as ‘everyday practicality, lifestyle functionality, and inspired by a number of designers’. One in particular being Nigerian designer
Tunde Owolabe, who manufactures his fabrics by hand. As to what gets him in the mood to create? Playing Pink Floyd, Kanye West, or Philip Tabane.
The brand has amassed a loyal following and among their most famous local fans are Austin Malema, Sibusiso Mahone, Bridget
Masinga and Maps Maponyane. Popular items include the Presidential slim-fit jeans, denim dungarees and shirts – all of which come with Tshepo’s distinctive crown logo embroidered on them.
‘I have been in business for four years now. We’ve had a couple of missteps and been given second chances, and today we’re bigger, we’re better and people are showing support. I am happy that we’re living in a time were most South Africans are proud to be Africans and you can see it from the jeans they wear.’
The journey is not without its challenges, however. ‘Being in the South African textiles and clothing industry is tough. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of CMTS (Cut, Make & Trim) that manufacture high end denim, which means our brand is forced to look at other African countries in the SADEC region to collaborate and manufacture world class ready-to-wear jeans in the most sustainable and ecofriendly way.’
He sources his fabrics from Mauritius and Japan. ‘Our bespoke selvedge denim is one of the most beautiful pieces of cloth. The cotton sourced from Zimbabwe, fabric hand woven and naturally dyed in Japan, brought back to South Africa, and made by women in our atelier.’ Achieving a global footprint is at the top of his list, and he is even more optimistic about the visibility of the brand after offering his services to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who he met on the Royal South African tour last year. He designed a pair of jeans for her and dungarees for baby Archie. ‘Their visit was just affirmation that we’re doing something great and the world is watching closely. It is one of my career highlights and I will always strive for the best.’
‘we’ve become an authority in the South african denim culture’