TSHEPO THE KING MAKER.
Tshepo the Jean Maker isn’t just making cool local jeans, he’s reclaiming the narrative of denim in Africa.
When Tshepo Mohlala, aka Tshepo the Jean Maker, first moved into his space at Victoria Yards in Lorentzville, Johannesburg, the artist Ayanda Mabulu, who has a studio there, popped in. He was so impressed with what he saw inside the new shop and atelier that he grabbed a can of spray paint, and graffitied “Tshepo” on the wall, with a crown above it. “You’re a king!” he said.
That crowning moment gave the TSHEPO brand its logo, now embroidered on every pair of jeans that comes out of the studio.
Mohlala famously launched his denim brand with an R8 000 loan, 100 pairs of jeans and a bicycle to do deliveries. Now, in addition to the store in Vic Yards, there’s an outlet in Hyde Park Corner. He’s dressed the likes of rapper Cassper Nyovest, notably on the night of his #FillUpFNBStadium concert, and was paid a personal visit by Meghan Markle – then still officially a princess – when she picked up a pair of jeans in 2019.
“Our decision to locate ourselves in Victoria Yards was largely due to how close it is to where many of our atelier tailors live, which makes travelling to work and back a lot more accessible,” says Mohlala. “There is also a wonderful community that we have been able to become a part of in that space, which we are very grateful for. TSHEPO has at its core a commitment to community and people, and using our brand to uplift and empower our community, so Victoria Yards is a perfect fit for us.”
Crowns and camaraderie aside, Mohlala has found purpose not only in success, but in exploring and communicating the broader significance of this everyday item of clothing.
“I fell in love with denim first when my aunt Takalani used to visit Tsakane in a head-to-toe denim look,” he recalls. “She was the first from my family to graduate university, and she is a constant source of inspiration, strength and style. This [inspired me to work in denim] and realising that the one thing everyone owns is a pair of jeans – there’s something really unifying and beautiful about making something that everyone will wear.”
Denim has been at the heart of social change before: when rivets were added to the tough fabric in the late 1800s in the US by a Jewish immigrant named Levi Strauss, they became the default workwear of a nation, the go-to for miners, cowboys and construction workers. In 1950s America, in the wake of a world war and with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando aided their crossover into mainstream fashion. As youth culture brought social mobility and cultural revolution to the US, jeans daringly celebrated the working classes, fashionably upending socially stratified dress codes. Jeans became ubiquitous.
Mohala, however, has picked up another narrative thread to give jeans a different resonance – and new relevance – here in SA.
“The idea of denim as African, and telling the story of denim on the African continent is a concept that is central to the brand, and to our design process,” he explains. “Denim is something that is often understood as definitive of American or Western culture, but TSHEPO wants to recognise and celebrate denim’s African roots. The cotton we use to construct our denim is from Zimbabwe and is recognised as some of the best cotton in the world. The story of denim is one intricately tied to colonialism, slavery and exploitation and this makes cotton unrefutably, painfully OURS as Africans. That’s why we want to use denim to tell these stories, to reposition denim in the hands of those who it truly belongs to – us.”
He reflects that the pandemic, while “definitely a challenge”, also consolidated his vision and sense of what he’s doing. “It also allowed us some really valuable time to reflect and reinforce our ethos as a company,” he says. “The pandemic taught us all, I think, the importance of community, and the power that we all have to make significant change. Particularly within the fashion industry, we’ve seen a big movement for supporting local brands.”
And with that vision clarified, TSHEPO is launching a women’s range later this year, as well as a relaunch of their signature expressions, the TJ1 jeans. “Look out for our ‘We, The People’ capsule collection that is set to launch very, very soon,” he adds. “Follow us at @tshepojeans on Instagram, @tshepojeans on Twitter and @tshepothejeanmaker on Facebook to keep up to date – there are surprises on their way!”