(Written by Sphosethu Magudulela and edited by Odwa Zamane)
Designer and founder of Siyababa Atelier, Siyabonga Mtshali, has an unmistakable eye for unforgettable garments. That, combined with a 'fear-nothing-but-do-the-utmost' approach, has landed him as a ‘moment maker’ in contemporary South African fashion. In 2020 alone, he’s been behind raunchy-cum-camp campaigns – striking looks on a cohort of dynamic muses such as Fela Gucci, Desiree Marea, Boity, and Moonchild Sanelly.
From Berlin to Maboneng, the Atelier brand, described as "Gqom luxury apparel", is killing it and doing it in the most punchy, unapologetic manner. It has the kind of flair that tells you a fearless captain is behind it – and you would be correct in thinking so. Siyabonga Mtshali is the mastermind behind Siyababa Atelier, and through his design philosophy which is rooted in Durban Gqom culture influences, he has managed to capture the imagination of a new school of South African designers and fashion fanatics.
We have a conversation to discuss the career of the fashion designer and creative director.
Front row with Siyabonga Mtshali of Siyababa Atelier
Sphosethu: Okay, thanks for talking to us! Where do we start?! As a Durbanite, I'm delighted by you describing your Atelier brand as Gqom luxury apparel. Mainly because, for an industry dominated by the Eurocentric gaze, there isn't anything as "take up space" as that description for an Atelier (fashion house). How does home, being KwaZulu Natal, and heritage inform your design process and the philosophy of the brand as a whole?
(Image sourced on Instagram from: @retangart)
Siyabonga: It comes from my design process. So before I even touch my sketching pad and pencil, or even envision what the clothes are going to look like, I first think about the runway and what type of music the models are going to be walking to. I go onto YouTube and go through at least a five-day span of just variations (of designs) on the ground, and that needs to go to models I envisioned those garments go with. So that's where the ‘Gqom luxury apparel’ comes from – the Gqom genre is the source of inspiration for the clothes.
Sphosethu: I never would even think of that – it must inform the movement of the pieces in a really cool way.
Siyabonga: Yeah. Definitely, definitely!
(Image sourced on Instagram from: @flank_fortune)
Sphosethu: You were recently featured on Beyonce's, Black Parade Directory of black-owned businesses, that was curated by Zerina Eckers, founder of Black-Owned Everything. How does that make you feel in terms of the trajectory of your career and your goals?
Siyabonga: People tapped in and I get excited in that five seconds and then go:, "Okay, now it's time to ‘Be ‘Yoncé’ and not only ‘be on the website’. There's always another goal – we're pushing for higher. But all in all, the response was great. And I think that also gave me, some validation to go like: "Maybe he's doing something, maybe you're onto something, you know?"
Sphosethu: That gratification.
Siyabonga: Yes! Definitely.
Sphosethu: Looking at the landscape of fashion design, it appears the zeitgeist belongs to African designers. Growing up, if we were consuming fashion media, you would seldom think of searching for South African designers, and the industry has people finally tuned in, in an engaged new way. You are in a real sweet spot to excite the kind of avid fashion kid you were yourself, since you've had this aspiration to be a designer from grade nine. How does it feel to be a part of?
(Image sourced on Instagram from: @nkuleymasemola)
Siyabonga: It feels incredible – each moment. Like, I want to take advantage of the whole situation. The creatives are out. The youth has a voice finally to express themselves. I'm just like, along with the wave as well. You know, I also, as you said, grew up looking to European fashion. There was no one that I could sit in Africa and say I want to be, and being a part of the zeitgeist right now and having the people to be an inspiration to is pretty awesome. ‘Cause yeah, guys, I still need cheering. Bring it on. It's pretty awesome. It's long overdue.
Sphosethu: Yeah, true, true. You have said that a career in fashion has been your aspiration since grade nine. Throughout your journey, have there been points where you genuinely felt like throwing in the towel and if so, what carried you through those times?
Siyabonga: Never. "I want to give up," is not an option. I just always have someone who, if it wasn't a parent, it's your friend – if it's not a friend, it's a singular comment from someone just underneath or elsewhere. So you're not doing anything, I believe, if everyone likes it.
Sphosethu: Okay. That's different. That's definitely something because most of us tend to look at the negatives and seek validation from every single person. It's gutsy to have that impenetrable confidence in what you're doing. What are some misconceptions about fashion designers and your industry that annoy you?
Siyabonga: I'm not sure. I feel like I fit the stereotype. Thing is, like, I don't know – actually – the misconception may be that like, that they can't dress. But sometimes I don't dress up, because I don’t want to. So I fit that category/stereotype – sometimes. *Both chuckle*
Sphosethu: I guess we all have those moments. I'm imagining the release, catharsis or gratification of creative work and the reality of the work it takes to realize it – , especially because you are an Atelier, so for one piece, getting it from A to Z must be an immense undertaking. What are some aspects of your work that like you endorse, but you really would not mind going along without forever?
Siyabonga: Touching a sewing machine, definitely.
Sphosethu: So you're good with envisioning the pieces and then if you could wave a wand...
Siyabonga: I'm already waving the one. I haven't touched the sewing machine in a while *chuckles*
Sphosethu: Something that a lot of aspiring artists wonder about is the day-to-day work in the industry – how work-intensive the days can get? What do your days look like and how has the pandemic affected them?
Siyabonga: Obviously at the beginning of the pandemic, work was starting to slowly decrease. It resulted in a lot of debt actually – a lot of debt because now clients were taking back their orders and everything. Yeah, like day-to-day, I like being flexible. I always said that a nine to five is not exactly for me. I would rather have flexible days that take 18 hours of my day, than being seated on the spot and having the exact same conversation. Yeah, like, it's just long ass hours and trying to put shit together and communicate with a lot of people. Because, if you want to encourage you to at the end of the day, I always feel like it's always a collaborative effort. So it's collaborating with young artists. If you want to make a print, it's speaking to black seamstresses that I work with and micromanaging. It also involves a lot of discipline as well, because you set the deadline for yourself, and if you don’t make it, you're just gonna be left behind. It's always a collaborative effort. You have to make sure that your vision is achieved and the thing that happened with me, because I learned it the hard way, was that luckily COVID-19 got me to actually refine my business. That's why we've been so cool. We tested the quality of some of Siyababa Atelier and actually brought a higher vision – where we start competing with your European, Asian market, and new African markets. Competition is tight.
(Image sourced on Instagram from: @nkuleymasemola)
(Siyababa Atelier garments worn in Birk Alisch's contribution to the European Month of Photography exhibition)
Sphosethu: I think that's really interesting that the pandemic has sort of forced people to come to the fore and, simultaneously, step back and look at where they are. Being adaptive is probably a good thing to learn in this part of your fashion career, rather than later.
Siyabonga: I definitely think it gave us a chance to gain perspective, despite the debt it resulted in – but that's just one of the costs.
Sphosethu: That is an implication that many think of being an entrepreneur in these times – especially in these times it's quite concerning in general. Speaking to the convergence of brand identity, output and marketability – one of your latest offerings, the “Siyabhebhana” Ready to Wear Moodboard for 2020 puts LGBTQIA culture, and sexuality, front and centre in a way that is unique to this generation of artists. It shows African or Bantu queerness unapologetically and clearly communicates that, like Desire Marea, Fela Gucci, and all these muses you have dressed that I could name. How important is it for you to include this in the identity of the brand so early out of the gate?
(Image sourced on Instagram from: @siyababaatelier)
Siyabonga: I always believed designs are not there to be downplayed – my designs are not there to cater to a mass market. As I said, if you like it, you like it. If you don't, you don't, but this is what I'm trying to experience. Because I've oppressed myself in terms of my bisexuality, and I thought it would be fun to actually use my clothes as a poetic, poetic material so to say. Because there's always that element of: “I became the person that I needed when I was younger”. That's why I'm so vocal about sex. That's why I'm so vocal, and always like posting some nudes on Instagram because I mean, chubby niggas need to know that could be hot too. I remember even in high school calling myself ‘Sexy Chubby Nigga’ because of Cassper. Those were the people you would look up to? It's like, you wanted representation, but it just lacked that edge for me. So I think I became it. I think I forgot the question.
Sphosethu: I was talking about the identity of the brand and including LGBTQIA representation.
Siyabonga: Oh, so: I love that in the queer community, people express themselves, no matter how they want to express themselves. Honestly. You could never find someone trying to replicate the exact same aesthetic as the next person, and you can always see if it's authentic to them or not. I feel like in that way Siyababa Atelier and the LGBTIA community are intertwined.
(Image sourced on Instagram from: @fashionhandbooksa)
Sphosethu: What collection or garment in the history of art/fashion do you look at and think, “Darn, I wish I thought of that!"?
Siyabonga: Oh gosh, too many to even count! Let me think… Anything by Alexander McQueen.
Sphosethu: That's a great one! Literally legendary. I think that's us done, thank you so much! All the best for the future and thanks for talking to us.
Siyabonga: Thank you! All the best.