Clothing designer Sonwabile Ndamase was born and bred in Libode, formerly in Transkei, now in Eastern Cape, and made his name as the designer of the famous Madiba shirts, the often colourful, always eye-catching shirts worn by the iconic Nelson Mandela.
Ndamase is now offering the youth of his home province the opportunity to learn how to make a career in the fashion industry.
He launched a learnership programme for his South African Fashion Designers Agency (Safda) in East London on 26 January. Ndamase, wearing one of his trademark shirts, spoke passionately about how the agency was his way of giving back to the community and continuing the legacy of the globally recognised late statesman.
"This is very important to me," said Ndamase. "Part of it is to leave the legacy of Tata Mandela that he asked me to do. He asked me to plough back to the community where I come from and make it a point I change people's lives.
"By wearing my shirt, (Mandela) did the same for me because before that nobody knew me. He opened up the markets for me. We managed to crack the industry and make it a point that things start to work for the betterment of an African child," he said.
While the original Madiba shirt – known as the 'fish shirt' – was designed by local designer Desre Buirski Nash, Ndamase was tasked by Mandela to design his own unique style.
Ndamase tells BBQ business magazine how he came to be Madiba's personal shirt maker: "Tata gave me the brief on how and what he would like to wear… it was influenced by his health at the time… his lungs (affected by the conditions on Robben Island), so
he needed something cool to the body, easy to wear, but as he called it 'well-behaved.'"
Ndamase sent Mandela a number of ideas and designs and picked an uncharacteristically colourful one. "Madiba wanted his own look, something different from the usual politician, so I started to create the kind of a shirt that would make him stand out, but still look well-behaved," Ndamase explained.
As the founder and chairperson of Safda and its Vukani Fashion Awards programme, which was started in 1993, Ndamase has put up R250 000 of his own money to kick-start the new learnership project. Partnering with the Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta), the project has raised R3.5-million that will be used to support 150 students while they learn about the process and business of fashion design over the 12-month programme.
While the programme is
specifically aimed at previously disadvantaged fashion design graduates, it is also open to unemployed youths with an interest in the industry, as well as physically challenged individuals.
"The all-inclusive project intends to recruit 25 physically challenged youths to enrol as part of the programme," Ndamase said.
He emphasised that Safda was the only portal through which the evolution of the first generation of South Africa's fashion artistry could be witnessed since the advent of democracy. In turn, this also ensured the agency's ability to stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing environment.
Fashion had an important role to play in forming an African identity, he added. Clothes were symbols, as he told BBQ. They "they tell who you are, where you are coming from and where you are going to. I was trying to send a message:
we as young and upcoming designers cannot to be fooled by what is happening around the world and embody ubuntu so that they can show who we are and where we are coming from."
His proudly African philosophy helps to inspire his students to strive to be the best they can be and to deliver original African art and culture: "Africa is fresh, Africa is new, Africa is energetic… we have so much to offer to the world."