A Soweto design team turns garage-made vibrant T-shirts into a must-have label, writes Nontando Mposo
Quirky, quality clothing that celebrates the arts as well as African culture and heritage is what the Iintsizwa Ziphelele brand is about.
Based in Pimville, Soweto, , the label launched in 2006 and is recognised as one the coolest and oldest streetwear brands.
I meet co-owner Mogomotsi Magome at their studio/factory as the township comes to life.
The studio facing the street is a kaleidoscope of colour, displaying T-shirts, headwear, jackets and shirts in mixed prints and fabrics. Chatting over a breakfast of puffy amangwinya (vetkoek) and polony, Magome tells me Iintsizwa Ziphelele, which loosely translated means Brotherhood, is a story of brothers united by their love for fashion and the arts.
Magome and his friend and business partner Mthunzi Nkosi met when they were studying at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).
“We were studying things that had nothing to do with fashion. I was doing operational management and Nkosi was doing management services… very corporate stuff.
“We got involved in the arts such as poetry and over time an idea about having a clothing line came about and it wasn’t just him and me at the time, there were other friends involved,” he said.
“The idea was to create a clothing label that we could identify with, away from mainstream and retail clothing. Mostly because we were in the arts and working with musicians and artists, we wanted to create a brand that people can identify with… an African brand but not your typical African. A blend of African prints mixed with modern styles and fabrics,” says Magome.
Their signature T-shirts display cool graphics telling stories of African traditions, such as their popular T-shirt with the word “Lobola” on it. This in many African cultures, such as in the Zulu and Xhosa nations, is a price paid by the groom to the bride’s family before marriage.
“The name Iintsizwa Ziphelele represents the principles of a brotherhood,” says Magome.
“When we were in tertiary, for a lot of us it was unchartered territory and for us to survive we had to stick together as a collection of friends.
“There has always been a necessity to keep brothers around, help each other to survive socially and otherwise. That bond that we formed gave birth to Iintsizwa Ziphelele and it has been like that ever since,” he says.
“In the beginning we were just printing T-shirts using a small one-colour screen printing machine, the most basic method of printing that you can use, in a garage. Back then the trend was to print political icons such as Steve Biko on T-shirts, it was about what was happening on the streets and people wanted to see that.
“As time went on we worked with graphic designers to create different kinds of images. It’s a big jump from where we were. We have now moved beyond T-shirts and are creating a variety of things,” says Magome.
Although the brand primarily produces menswear, they also have a handful of women’s T-shirts and bucket hats on offer. During my visit I styled their menswear collection for their summer look-book. Their pieces, such as the camouflage shirt and sleeveless bomber jackets work as unisex pieces.
“The printed images on our clothing speak about life in the townships and homelands, and represent our daily reality as black peoples no matter where we are in the world. The brand celebrates Ubuntu and the last remnants of our cultures, post apartheid,” says Nkosi, who I interviewed later.
“Through the clothing we get to tell our stories. Fashion has played a role in defining people and eras, telling tales of different generations from the 1600s to the ’80s and now post slavery. We are inspired by the rich history that our country tells, the unique nation of this world – in fashion, music, languages and the different cultural exchanges that come from the different ethnic groups,” he says.
From humble beginnings to now having a fully functional mini factory at the back of their studio boasting the latest technology in printing, sewing and embroidery machines, the duo now employs young graduates and offer their services to other brands and organisations.
Not only is their clothing popular in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Joburg, they also have clients overseas.
“The business is funding itself. What we did is to try and create a business model that can sustain the brand. The machines that we use to produce our brand, we also use them to produce printing services to other brands. A lot of young brands get killed because it’s not that easy to get out there and make as many sales as possible and produce again. We had to find some innovative way of making it work,” Magome said.
“Obviously growth is inevitable. Three years from now we should be in every corner of the country in department stores. One of the business’s primary objectives is to create jobs for our people and play our part in this country’s economic growth, not only by enriching ourselves but by building our community here in Soweto,” adds Nkosi.
● Connect with Iintsizwa Ziphelele on:
Facebook: Iintsizwa Ziphelele