Growing up in a township outside Johannesburg, Tshepo Mohlala was mocked for wearing skinny jeans before they were popular.
More than a decade later, ridicule has turned into admiration as the 32-year-old is now a successful fashion designer making denim praised by global celebrities including Beyonce and Meghan Markle.
“The township was never ready for my sense of style,” he said, sitting in his atelier in a trendy redeveloped industrial building in Johannesburg.
The South African entrepreneur has made a name for himself in the past few years with tailor-made jeans targeting African women who, poorly served by Western brands, struggled to find a perfect fit.
“A whole lot of African women have a tiny waist and big booties, and big hips and tiny legs,” said Mohlala, a slender man with close-cropped hair and a goatee framing a broad smile.
“We created a range of jeans using raw denim with no stretch that is super tailored for women,” he said.
Before they were clients, women were a source of inspiration for Mohlala. The logo of Tshepo Jeans, his firm, is a stylised crown with three spikes representing the three women who marked his life. His mother taught him resourcefulness, his grandmother taught him to behave like a gentleman and a stylish aunt introduced him to fashion.
Later, when he was short of money and forced to drop out of fashion school, it was a fourth woman he was dating who helped him set up his business in 2015.
“She was like: ‘Yo, dude, listen, I see you’re obsessed with this thing, here is access to 8,000 [rand] and go ahead and start your business,’” Mohlala said. “I took that loan and went to buy myself some fabric and created the first range of jeans.”
The line got traction as he cleverly advertised it on social media, creating anticipation — “Something big is coming” — and telling his own story.
Now about 10 tailors sew away behind large windows under the high ceiling of his workshop. Tshepo Jeans’ top-range denim is made from cotton produced in neighboring Zimbabwe, which is then sent to a mill in Japan before being cut and assembled back in Johannesburg.
Many local customers like a light denim “with a bit of stretch” that is “comfortable” and “breathable,” making it well suited for the hot African weather, Mohlala said.
Personalized pairs sell for about US$375, the equivalent of 7,128 rand, just less than it cost Mohlala to start his business.
Orders come from all over the world.
In 2019, the brand got a massive boost from Meghan Markle, who bought a pair during a trip to the continent.
“A lot of South Africans at the time would say: ‘Why would I buy Tshepo?’ and then you have the Duchess of Sussex coming here, really calling me and begging: ‘I need to get a pair of jeans from you before I leave the country,’” Mohlala said.
A year later, US pop star Beyonce listed Tshepo Jeans among brands she admired.
“Celebrity endorsement has really helped build our brand and opened up doors for us on a global scale,” Mohlala said.
“He is winning hearts abroad and in South Africa,” said denim fanatic Thando Made, who runs a fashion blog about jeans.
“Denim is like religion: You choose the one that works for you,” Made said. “In this space that Tshepo is in, he speaks to somebody who wants to embody the pride of being South African.”
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