Isishweshwe, the ethnic- print cotton fabric synonymous with traditional African dress, is never more elegant than when Bongiwe Walaza gets her hands on it.
Her mix ’n match versions of it, in figure-hugging dresses with low-cut necklines or Victorian ruff collars, caused a sensation at Joburg Fashion Week recently, elevating isishweshwe to illustrious haute couture.
Diminutive and unpretentious, Walaza is not your usual fashion designer. In fact, she’s a qualified electrical engineer.
“I did electrical engineering because my father didn’t approve of my passion for making clothes and didn’t want me to go into design,” she says. “But this has always been my calling.”
Looking at the fine detail of her tiered skirts and intricate sleeves and collars, it’s clear that Walaza doesn’t shy away from challenge in her craft. She describes her style as African traditional crossed with Victorian, and aside from isishweshwe, she uses a lot of satin, taffeta and some velvet.
All the trimmings and fastidiousness that defined the elegant silhouette of the Victorian lady can be found in Walaza’s designs. One of her more spectacular offerings at Joburg Fashion Week – themed “Freedom of Expression” – was a cheeky dress with a full, flouncy thigh-length skirt in blue isishweshwe with a high ruff collar, paired with a bolero with long, slender cuffs.
Born in Mqanduli, a small village in the Eastern Cape, Walaza took to knitting and sewing as a child. Her mother was a home dressmaker, and Walaza would make her own clothes from the remnants of her mother’s fabrics.
“I’ve always loved working with print fabric, as it is so available and easy to maintain,” she says.
At her father’s prompting, however, Walaza focused on maths and physics at school and went on to study electrical engineering at the then Peninsula Technikon in Cape Town. After she qualified she started working at Telkom, and it was there that the seeds of her designing career were planted. “I would make myself a dress and my colleagues would also want me to make them clothes. My house was always packed with women colleagues and friends,” she says.
Unhappy with the quality of her dressmaking, she decided to study fashion design, and in 1997 she enrolled at Natal Technikon for a national diploma in fashion. “After my first year I won an award. It was then that I knew I’d made the right choice.”
Walaza moved to Joburg in 2000 and joined the Young Designers’ Workshop, quickly clocking an impressive number of successes in 10 years. She won the M-Net Africa Design Award, which took her to New York Fashion Week in 2001, and has since dressed a slew of high-profile personalities. She has also been honoured by True Love magazine as Hot Designer: Ethnic Chic.
In addition she has been a product developer for Wild Silk Africa, designed for Edgars stores (using the label Bozza), and consults closely with Da Gama, the renowned local textile company that produces the Mandela range. At present she is involved in B’avumile programme, a skills development programme for women in rural areas.
Her range has showcased abroad – in New York, India, Las Vegas, London, Switzerland, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Thessalonica in Greece, Hong Kong, Guangzhou in China, Shanghai, Egypt, Singapore and Italy.
Describing her Winter 2011 range as “the best I’ve ever done”, she says it is ultra-feminine.
“I like to show the shape and structure of a woman’s body.”
Her audience at Joburg Fashion Week obviously approved, and was also keen to see what she had been incubating since her last show at Sanlam Fashion Week in 2007.
Walaza lives in Kempton Park, travelling daily to her studio in Joburg’s new fashion hub in Pritchard Street, the Fashion Kapitol.
When demand is high she has about 14 people working for her, otherwise five. “People come from all over the country for my isishweshwe garments, especially if they need something for a traditional wedding,” she says.
She’s unapologetic about favouring this traditional cloth, which occasionally invites criticism for being Afro-traditionalist.
“This is our African heritage, our identity,” she says.
She uses the distinctive patterned fabric in indigo, blue, brown or red in a very modern way, however, with one of her styles being puff shoulders and a tight waist; another a tunic top offset by a flaring, tiered skirt, harking back to the 1950s.
Judging by the applause at the end of her Joburg Fashion Week show, the courage of Walaza’s convictions is paying off. - The Star