EASTERN Cape-born Bongiwe Walaza is one of South Africa's leading fashion designers, with her work often appearing on magazine covers and on TV. She was the one designer chosen as a cultural ambassador to represent South Africa in Berlin, Germany this year and her couture is sought-after by singers, actresses and celebrities.
Born and raised in Mqanduli in the Transkei, Walaza has not allowed the bright lights of Jozi to sweep her off her feet but has remained pragmatic and humble about her work.
Among the household names she has designed for is Freshlyground lead singer Zolani Mahola.
Walaza put together some items for her for the band's recent "Nationwide Tour".
"Zolani approached me and said she would like me to dress her and she chose some of my designs she liked and I made them up for her. She chose the colours.
"It was a pleasure working with her. She wore about five of my designs. Zolani is a down-to-earth person and lovely, not what some people might expect a celebrity to be like."
Walaza's approach is to dress individuals. "I make garments that portray the woman and enhance femininity without being too revealing – an outfit can be everything a woman needs to be attractive, without being revealing," she says.
Commenting on the structure of her garments, many of which involve a fitted bodice and flared skirt, Walaza says: "Most of our African ladies – and I don't mean colour, I mean in terms of habitation, geography – tend to have a pear shape, so they are smaller up top and people don't like to expose their larger areas.
"I use a fitted bodice because it shows the person has a beautiful structure, but then I flare the skirt. This is done in such a way that it celebrates the curves and makes them more appealing – so people won't say the person is big."
Now 47, she has worked hard for her brand: "Most of the time creatives don't make good business people. Business can quench enthusiasm and passion and with a small business, you have to do many things."
Walaza says a bugbear for designers is the fact that Chinese copy designer clothes are reasonably priced, so everyone can afford them.
One of her signatures is to use proudly South African original shweshwe (German print), manufactured by Da Gama Textiles in the Eastern Cape.
"I just love prints and started using the fabric at Technikon in my final year-end show. I wanted something different – something African. While in my final year, I did a fashion week – and decided to use shweshwe and other fabrics – it's something I know from my childhood. With the tradition of Makoti, women wear shweshwe for about six months after their marriage.
"Now the cloth has undergone a liberation and made it into weddings, boardrooms, evening functions and even TV shows such as Muvhango, The Wild and Generations."
One of Walaza's recent special designs was a wedding dress for M-Net's The Wild soapie when the characters, Lelo and Tiro, got married this year.
It was said to be the largest 'TV wedding' ever in South Africa.