Youth Month: Atlantis designer breaking the barriers with creativity

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries of Atlantis. Picture: Supplied

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries of Atlantis. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 16, 2023


Cape Town – Unemployment continues to be a crisis in South Africa and many young people are determined to ensure they do not become a statistic. IOL spoke to one such person.

Diego April Jeffries, 27, of Atlantis, has always had an eye for fashion, and while he initially focused his creativity on music, he soon found his passion for fashion.

Diego April Jeffries Designs was founded in 2021 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic while Jeffries was studying.

“I started studying that year. While starting school I started trading as well and mastering the skills by myself,” he said.

“My love of fashion comes from my grandmother. She is my fashion icon. Growing up around fashionable things, I’m into many fashion designers and artists. My creative side peaked from a very young age looking up to so many different artists.

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries with his grandmother, Cyntia Adams. Picture: Supplied

“I started singing at the age of nine, my performing career started at a young age and I think that just intertwined (with fashion). It was never in my mind to do fashion design but I’ve always been introduced to the styling aspect of a performer,” he said.

Jeffries entered the fashion scene when he lost his job but said the industry could be gut-wrenching.

“I lost my job due to retrenchment in finance. I didn’t have anything to fall back on other than go back into law which I was not going to do. Regardless, if you’re self-taught, I can go on YouTube and teach myself how to sew because right now the way the industry and economy look, it’s who you know.

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries of Atlantis. Picture: Robin-Lee Francke/IOL

“It’s really difficult to break out into the fashion industry in South Africa, you get recognised by who you style or dress. It’s about who you know. I’d definitely say it’s challenging getting into the industry itself and getting recognition as a designer.

Designer and stylist, Diego April Jeffries from Atlantis. Photo: supplied

“I could be self-taught and style Bonang (Matheba) tomorrow and be the god of fashion, for example, than to have the qualifications on my wall and it means absolutely nothing because that’s how the industry works or this is how society sees it, regardless of qualifications.

“It’s really not fruitful to have a qualification,” Jeffries said.

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries designs for and styles TikTok influencer Keegan van der Westhuizen. Picture: Supplied

Proud of his sexuality, Jeffries said finding work at fashion institutions was difficult as they were not as diverse as he expected.

“Work would be impossible to find if you have to apply at any fashion institute. Institutions are like, are we open to diversity? Are we open to people that have different sexualities? Is it because you’re queer that’s why you don’t get work in the industry?

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries with Daylon Brandt. Picture: Supplied

“That is one of the challenges we face. Like, can people just be more diverse and inclusive to that point? I would say gay people are the most hard-working people. This is definitely an obstacle – sexuality,” he told IOL.

He said he never thought he would get the response he had received from people in such a short time, and he was amazed that people from all walks of life were reaching out to him.

Diego April Jeffries Designs maternity wear. Picture: Supplied

“If I post things on social media, people are drawn and people want to be dressed or styled by me and that’s crazy.

“These past two years have been so fruitful. From a social stand, people see my things on social media and contact me.

“When people say: your friends are not your clients, it is very accurate.

“I always say it to my friends and tell them they’re not my clientele,” Jeffries said.

A Grade 12 pupil had Jeffries design her matric ball dress last year. Picture: Supplied

His busiest time of the year is matric ball season. Last year he dressed Grade 12 pupils from schools such as Bosmansdam, Durbanville and Melkbosstrand, and the schools in his area such as Atlantis and Robinvale.

“This year I have Atlantis Secondary, Robinvale, and Saxonsea high schools, Schoonspruit and Wesbank in Malmesbury, and Melkbosstrand. It’s growing annually and it’s so amazing,” he said.

Designer and stylist Diego April Jeffries of Atlantis. Picture: Robin-Lee Francke/IOL

Sitting at his sewing machine working on alterations, Jeffries is a bit tight-lipped to spill the tea on who he styles and giggles when asked if it is ‘top secret’.

“I’ve had the opportunity to style so many influential people. On the drag scene, so many of my friends that I work with such as Maxine Wild. I also style many pageant girls.

“One of the people I love styling is Whaden Johannes, from ‘Arendsvlei’ (a local television show). I style him for all his events and love working with him,” he said.

A regular client on Jeffries’s list is South African actor Whaden Johannes. Picture: Supplied

While his female clothing range sells like hotcakes, Jeffries said he loves working outside of the ‘normal realm’ and seeks room for creativity.

“I don’t want people to really bring me pictures and design it from a mannequin. I want to have that room for creativity. I think that’s what sells. I think people come to me not necessarily because I’ m gay but because I have a queer eye for things. The ‘it’ element to my designs,” he explained.

He defines his style as unique and bold.

“Fashion is a language so whatever you wear should start a conversation.

“I have also been extroverted, but I have always used my fashion and styling other people as a conversation starter, as a language, because some of us are not that comfortable and have different anxiety struggles.

“This is somewhat my coping mechanism – walking into a room and letting my clothes do the talking, as it should be, and not my sexuality,” Jefferies said.

He said he was excited when other young people who opted to start their own businesses made it known that he was the source of their inspiration.

“It has been inspiring when people walk up to me and say they have looked at my journey and I made it look effortless.

“If people should know the struggle. If they know I had to stand up early every morning to just channel the creativity in my mind. That is the challenging part. But I can only attribute my success to God,” Jeffries said.

His advice to others wanting to pursue their dreams: “Do it. I have been so in my mind about what if it doesn’t work out, etc. Just shove that aside and just do it. Wake up, own up to your creative side and just move with it. Everything else will follow.”

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