It is often said that you will only find love when you’re not looking for it. I call this concept “unplanned attraction”, and believe that it is a universal truth: You will find what you are looking for when you’re not actively looking for it. It is not only often true of love, but also almost always true for inspiration. In my life, I find that it is especially true for discovering raw talent – and specifically so in the case of Johannesburgbased fashion designer, Palesa Mokubung, and her remarkable label, Mantsho.
When I first visited 27 Boxes in Melville, Johannesburg, a new and innovative concept (creating a shopping centre from shipping containers), I expected a glorified flea market – many small shops with traders selling random bits of unwanted trinkets. But on that very first visit, I was surprised – and pleasantly so.
The centre hosts an utterly fabulous restaurant in the form of The Countess, as well as a few art galleries, and home décor and interior design stores that have truly creative, design-focused merchandise. However, it was the unassuming rectangular space with a discreet sign telling me I was entering the premises of Mantsho by Palesa Mokubung that enthralled me, much like the Pevensie children must have been when stumbling into Narnia. I was soon to find out that there is much more to the story of Mantsho than what I saw on the shelves that day.
Raise by a single parent in Kroonstad, Palesa’s story is one of humble beginnings. When it came to pursuing a tertiary education, fashion was not at the top of the list. “I had a vague idea that I wanted to be in an arts-related field one day,” Mokubung explains in an interview published in the South African Fashion Handbook, “[but] it’s not as if I had this burning desire to be a fashion designer since the age of six”.
In fact, on arrival, Mokubung found the design queue to be the shortest and thought to herself, let’s give it a try – vaguely recalling her mother suggesting that very route earlier that morning. “By a twist of fate, and the lack of any interest in fashion among my fellow registrants that morning, I found myself on a career path where I knew I could become the best I could be,” she continues.
In another twist of fate, Mokubung decided to find work in a fashion outlet for the holiday season. Dressed head-to-toe in a self-made outfit, Mokubung walked into a boutique in Rosebank one day, oblivious to the Stoned Cherrie name above the door, and started talking to one of the ladies, who took a very keen interest in what she was wearing. What Mokubung did not realise was that she was talking to the owner of the store, the legendary Nkensani Nkosi.
Before long, Nkosi was asking Mokubung what she could do with 100 metres of the exact same fabric Mokubung’s outfit was made of – fabric that was simply laying at the Stoned Cherrie studio with no particular purpose in mind. “Can you imagine this teenager in the presence of a great South African designer – and she wanted advice from me,” Mokubung told Fashion Handbook. “Of course I just said ‘yes’ to everything!”
By the end of that week, Mokubung delivered 30 dresses to Stoned Cherrie, and got the sales assistant job. She recalls being happy on the morning of her first shift, seeing her dresses on the rail. But this feeling was soon overshadowed as six hours after the store opened that morning, all 30 dresses were sold. Nkosi’s reaction to the call informing her of this was simple: Go back and make some more!
The rest, as they say, is history. Mokubung worked at Stoned Cherrie long enough to gain the experience she needed before breaking away and starting the Mantsho label in 2004. She did eventually return to finish her studies, and now proudly holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fashion Design. She describes her clothes as funky, edgy and experimental, but hesitates to apply the term “African” to her designs, despite finding great inspiration in, for example, West African fabrics with their magnificent prints and bold colours.
To a casual observer, her clothing is simply magnificent, simultaneously conveying an air of confidence and a sense of effortlessness. The quirky elements are simply gorgeous, but at the same time, clever silhouettes are used to complement the female shape, a major characteristic of all her designs. Moreover, all her work is rooted in meticulous structure.
The ultimate compliment perhaps comes from Lucilla Booyzen, the iconic founder of SA Fashion Week, who describes Palesa as a fashion visionary “who has a rare quality to design from the heart”. Like my discovery in 27 Boxes, Mokubung is living proof of the universal concept of unplanned attraction. It’s her passion, determination, boldness and perseverance that has seen the Mantsho label not only survive in a cut-throat industry, but continue to thrive for more than a decade.