Nokwakha Qobo: From the dump to fashion riches

PUBLISHED: Thu, 06 Oct 2016 14:53:04 GMT

What can a rubbish dump teach you that university cannot? Just ask Nokwakha Qobo, who is living proof that great success stories can come from the unlikeliest places, such as graveyards and garbage. Her story below first appeared in FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Subscribe today by contacting Shanna Jacobsen [email protected]

It has a unique place in South African history, and also for the people who grew out of its innards to pave the way for a new South Africa. 

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Nokwakha Qobo was born in the squatter camps of Phuma Zibethane in Sharpeville. And in the garbage dumps of these camps, the fashion designer in her was born.

At the age of 17, she went to the Vaal University of Technology in Vanderbijlpark. She attended the programme for only four months, as her father was retrenched and she had no option but to drop out.

Life was rough. And that was also the reason for her first tryst with fashion.

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Qobo was tasked with turning inside out and sewing by hand the collars of her siblings’ school uniforms to renew and repurpose them. She was the oldest sister of five siblings. Initially, she had wanted to be a social worker. She says she was not aware that God was preparing her through poverty.

As a young girl, Qobo had to walk to school, passing graveyards. She often also passed a garbage site where old fashion magazines and newspapers were dumped.

Looking back, she says she drew inspiration and learned more there than she did in the four months at university.

“That’s where I learned about fashion trends, that’s where I learned about different colours for different seasons, that’s where I learned about the body structure of a woman, actually I’m a self-taught designer from a dump in Vanderbijlpark, that’s where I learned everything,” she says.

Despite their hardships, Qobo’s father managed to buy her a sewing machine to pursue her craft. She took the little she learned from her tertiary course and fused it with what she learned from the discarded magazines. She practiced her craft for her family making them school bags with denim and jerseys for the little ones patched with velvet during the winter.

“One day I made myself a mini-skirt with my mom’s tablecloth, to go to a nightclub; it tore! Luckily I had my needle and thread,” she laughs.

In 1998, Qobo ran away from home with her boyfriend, now her husband, to start a new job in Mpumalanga. She continued sewing and started making money in the farming town of Bethal. The ladies in town were her clients. She never wrote measurements on paper, but straight on to the fabric to cut and sew, she says. That was her technique.

Relocating from city to city with her husband however started becoming an issue; Qobo had created a client base and was now in a situation where she had to choose between her career or her relationship.

They moved to Nelspruit and she continued sewing, but had to start all over and build a new client base. It wasn’t easy.

“If people don’t know or trust you, they will never use your services, it was sad,” she says.

For the first time, in 2010, Qobo went to the Mpumalanga Fashion Week. She says designers judge newcomers and she was not dressed for the part; she had worn a T-shirt and jeans.

Qobo met Simphiwe Mtetwa, the Executive Chief Creative Director of Mpumalanga Fashion Week, who taught her the importance of photoshoots and fittings. He also taught her to be harsh.

“I was no longer a seamstress, that mother that used to sew from her house where I started; I pushed myself and got introduced to the fashion industry and designers. They are rude and cheeky, especially when they twang,” she laughs.

In 2011, Qobo showcased at the event again and got the opportunity to study fashion at the Tshwane University Of Technology (TUT) in 2012.

It wasn’t easy for Qobo; she was 39 and in class with tech-savvy youngsters who understood social media. Even the English language seemed an adversary. She couldn’t hear a word the lecturers taught and would always find an excuse to go to the toilet. 

“At least there was a young girl who would help me, Lerato Nkosi, who is currently in Cape Town. I would ask her what they are saying, what they are doing; I was panicking. But I completed my diploma in record time with distinctions,” she recalls.

During her student years, Qobo had qualified for a bursary and chose not to take it because she believed another person needed it more than she did. She knew how it felt not being able to afford tuition or go to school. Qobo’s husband could pay for her education thankfully.

Qobo’s passion led to her to winning the Entrepreneurship Award at TUT; she had been sewing blankets and traditional attire for the fun of stitching and selling them to lecturers.

After graduation, she remembers waiting in line to apply to showcase at the Retro Vintage Kolektion Fashion Week in 2015; she made it for both the Autumn/Winter (AW) and Summer/Spring collection (SS). During the SS collection, she received an honour to showcase in Ghana at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2016. She was the only designer representing South Africa.

Immediately after winning the award, Qobo went back to the drawing board and thought about her blessings. She was to prepare a collection for Soweto Fashion Week (SFW) 2016.

For this collection, she returned to where she started. It was the dump site where she got her inspiration, where she first knew about colours and sizes. 

“It was my best collection; it is where I thought back. I made that collection out of magazine prints and I made my showstopper out of paper, that’s the real inspiration of my life. From the dump to the ramp,” she says.

The title of her work at SFW 2016 was aptly, ‘From The Dump To The Ramp’, because it harked back to her years as a struggling and ambitious young girl who loved sewing.

If ever there is a rags to riches story in Africa, this is it.  

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