The king’s suitor sews a few tales
Tailor to the rich and famous reveals some secrets about regalia
● When businessman Don Mkhwanazi brought a friend to Janak Parekh’s Durban beachfront apartment in 1995, the renowned tailor was more than happy to run up a suit for the stranger, charging him R8,000.
It was only later that Parekh discovered his new client was King Goodwill Zwelithini, monarch of the Zulu nation. “He was just a normal, humble and inquisitive human being who treated everybody the same. He didn’t exercise his authority or display the ego of a king,” Parekh said this week.
The king, who died on March 12, went on to become one of the tailor’s best clients. “Whenever he was looking for an exclusive outfit he’d come to me, and 99% of the time he came to my flat or we would meet at his favourite hotel, the Beverly Hills in Umhlanga. If not, he would send his bodyguards to fetch me,” said Parekh.
The most expensive suit he made for King Zwelithini cost R100,000. “The fabric was imported from Yugoslavia and the embroidery was done in India. It took about six months to make,” said the tailor.
“When his majesty told me that he wanted a suit, he did not say what the occasion was. Sometimes there would be people who sponsored his suits.”
The highlight of Parekh’s relationship with the king came in 2016, when the king asked him to make a suit as a gift for visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The former car parts salesman got his start in the rag trade through a chance encounter with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Two years after arriving in SA from his native India, he was introduced to Buthelezi’s uncle, Prince Gideon Zulu.
“I met him in Nongoma at the royal residence through a journalist and I was informed that he suffered from arthritis.” Parekh offered him traditional Indian medicine “and he was healed within two days. He was so impressed that he introduced me to Prince Buthelezi.”
Parekh says Buthelezi was “meticulous and very particular about his attire. So on one occasion I noticed him on the podium and I decided to make him a suit.
“When I gave it to him, it fitted perfectly. He liked it so much that he used it on special occasions. Around the same time he took one of my suits to King Zwelithini as a gift and that suit also fitted him perfectly.”
Parekh has made suits for former presidents Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. “I have not designed anything for President Cyril Ramaphosa yet but I have designed an exclusive wall clock for him which will be presented to him,” he said.
The most expensive suit Parekh made — with a price tag of R328,000 — was in 2019 for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. “The fabric was expensive and the sheikh gave me diamonds and expensive gemstones to put on the suit,” he said.
His most difficult client was retired public works director-general Sipho Shezi, “who was always very particular, even more than Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is undoubtedly one of my favourite clients because he never leaves without paying”.
Recalling that Buthelezi returned a black suit which he wore for his 90th birthday celebration in 2018, Parekh said there had been a misunderstanding. “A journalist asked me how much the attire was and I told him it was befitting the occasion and that there was never a price tag to it because it was a gift from me and my family. The journalist then concluded that it must have cost R90,000.
“Buthelezi brought it back after wearing it once and explained to me that any gift of more than R1,500 he would have to declare, because it would be viewed as a corrupt act. We are still very good friends, so I did not take offence.”
Parekh said Zuma was “very pleasant” to deal with. “I made him a suit for his 65th birthday. He liked it so much that he wears it only on special occasions — like the opening of the 2010 World Cup.”
Parekh would not disclose how much the suit cost, but said: “I am planning to make him another one for his 80th birthday next year. I have also made [a suit] for UDM leader Bantu Holomisa. But the person that I really want to make attire for is Julius Malema.”