1. Home
  2. Articles
  3. David Tlale - Cut from African Cloth

David Tlale - Cut from African Cloth

Rising from the dusty streets of Vosloorus to the runways of Paris and New York, David Tlale is Africa's king of fashion, showcasing the continent to the world, one garment at a time.


David Tlale - Cut from African Cloth

It’s 2013 and the tent outside the Lincoln centre in New York is abuzz with production crews prepping the space for the semi-annual New York Fashion Week. At the entrance, his mouth only slightly agape, dressed in black, stands a 38-year-old South African. He reads the names on the marquee’s board from top to bottom: Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren. And there, in among the best of the best is his own: David Tlale. The boy from Vosloorus. 

In the early 80s in Vosloorus, a township east of Johannesburg, fashion design wasn’t high on the list of good career choices. In fact, it wasn’t on the list at all. Teacher, engineer, lawyer, accountant – these were the sorts of things matrics were supposed to aspire to. David Tlale, however, wasn’t interested – not for very long, at least – in the things he was supposed to become.  

“I went to register to study auditing at the Tshwane University of Technology,” the royalty of the SA fashion scene says, sitting on a chair fittingly plated in gold with a crown dangling from the back. Auditing, of course, is not the route to fashion stardom and it took a nudge in the right direction for him to find his path. “On the campus I used to see these crazy-looking students always overdressed carrying big portfolios. One day, I stopped one of them saying, ‘Listen, I’m sorry, can I talk to you? What are you studying?’”

The grunge-wearing student told David he was enrolled in a fashion design course – that included subjects like pattern technology, textiles and entrepreneurship – and invited him to a class. “As I walked in, lo and behold, I knew that this was my calling, that this was where I belonged,” he says. The following year, after securing a study loan on his own, David enrolled at the Vaal University for a BTech in Fashion. He moved in with friends in Sharpeville, from where he walked to the campus to begin with, and graduated best in class four years later.

A life filled with as much success and passion as David’s is not built on knowledge of cutting, designing, sewing and sketching garments alone. The fabric of his childhood was a rich tapestry of church life, Sunday school and boy scouts – all of which, together with the steady influence of his late mom Joyce, made him into the person he is today.

“In Vosloorus, I was raised with very strong principles of respect, discipline and, especially, respecting your elders,” he says. “I grew up in Sunday school, and to this day my spiritual journey remains a very important aspect of who I am and where I’m going.”

But Jozi soon came calling and David left Vosloorus at a young age to strike out on his own. Was it not for his spiritual upbringing, he says, he may have lost his way. “When I moved from home, I started engaging with different characters. Life became hectic and I found myself missing the days of choir practices and prayer meetings. And I’m, like, this is not me. I had to choose. Am I going to continue living this hectic life? Or am I going to become the person I want to become? The person who left Vosloorus to come to the city and build himself.”


Fortunately for fashion, David chose to build himself, and managed to build a world-renowned fashion brand along the way. His label, David Tlale, has its roots firmly planted on the African continent. 

His garments, worn and admired across the globe from Hong Kong to Paris to Milan, are inspired by what he has seen and experienced in – among many other places – Mpumalanga, Boksburg and Sharpeville. “I always ask, how do I make what we have locally amazing?” he says. “We are not only ‘the Big 5’, you know. We have stories to tell, an amazing heritage. I want people to understand that we are from Africa, that it’s okay to be African and it’s okay to have a diverse cast of models.”

David has showcased his collections in iconic South African settings such as the SA Mint, on Cape Town’s perennially unfinished bridge,the Bo-Kaap and on Constitution Hill. Of all of them, however, it was the show on the Nelson Mandela Bridge – the first-ever fashion show on the structure – in 2011 that was the most iconic. With 92 models to celebrate Mandela’s 92nd birthday, including the cast of the iconic soap The Bold and the Beautiful, the show revealed David’s 2011 Autumn/Winter ‘Made in the City’ collection to rapturous reviews.

“Beyond New York, beyond anything else, I feel the Nelson Mandela Bridge show was the defining moment of the David Tlale brand’s journey.”  Like all artists who manage to turn their talent into revenue, David has the ability to be both a creative and a savvy businessman. He speaks of value chains and ways to keep the clothing and textile industries afloat; of government investment to sustain jobs; of resuscitating the mills and factories; of price points and imports. And where others see a dark cloud in the shape of a raging pandemic, David sees a silver lining. As he told his team recently, it all begins in their minds, that they have a choice: either they give in or change how they do things and see things. 

A good example of a clear 20/20 optimistic view of the horrible year 2020 has been so far – and proof that David is someone who sees the glass, and the Zoom screen, half full – is his following recommendation and words on how to survive this crisis. “With all these Zoom meetings, what matters is head to waistline,” he says. “Make sure that you look good. Yes, finances are a shambles. But we have to keep inspiring ourselves. Spring is on its way and will bring with it, new life. And when it comes, we have to make sure that we are ready. Because, you know what, it’s okay to still look beautiful.”


David’s words of wisdom for budding fashion designers

✄ Fashion is not just about making clothes. You sketch, you cut, you sew, you design, you find fabrics, you create your own fabrics.

✄ It’s okay to have an open mind. We are the new generation – we can’t just have the same old, same old.

✄ Us South Africans have what it takes to become global brands. Don’t forget that!

David’s journey

1975 – Born in Vosloorus

1994 – Enrolled in the fashion design programme at VUT 

1998 – Graduated (best student in fashion 2nd, 3rd and 4th year)

1999 to 2001 – Junior lecturer at VUT

2003 – Awarded the coveted Elle New Talent Award at the South African Fashion Week 

2005 – Opened his own studio underneath a derelict supermarket in Rosebank and started his label, David Tlale

2006 – Head hunted by the House of Monatic to be the creative director for Carlucci Women

2007 – Selected as one of four South African designers to present at Paris Fashion Week

2010 – Debuted his Spring/Summer collection as part of an African collective at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week 

2012 – Showcased a solo collection at New York Fashion Week – the first South African designer to do so (he went on to showcase five more collections)

2014 – Awarded Designer of the Year at the African Diaspora Awards held in New York City; the African Icon of Hope Award in Nigeria; made the global list of 100 Most Inspiring Africans in London-based New African Magazine; and was featured in TIME Magazine as one of the designers shaping Africa’s fashion landscape

2015 – Headlined the BET Awards Experience 

2016 – Made the BET A-List as South Africa’s Style Icon


Top SA fashion courses

Universities of technology offer diplomas and/or degrees in fashion design

The Design School Southern Africa

BA in Fashion Design and specialised and Dressmaking short courses

Cape Town College of Fashion Design (CTCFD)

Certificate in Foundation Fashion Design (1 year), Diploma in Fashion and Garment 

Technology (2 years) and Diploma in Fashion Design (3 years), with the option to extend to an Advanced Diploma

North West School of Design

Diploma in Fashion Design (3 years), 

Diploma in Fashion Management and Communications, and part-time courses in Fashion Photography, Pattern and Corset Designing


Diploma in Fashion (3 years), BA in Fashion (3 years), BA Hons in Fashion (1 year full time or 2 years part time), Higher Certificate in a variety of short courses (18 months of evening classes), and short courses in Make-up, Creative Design, Pattern Design and Garment Construction (6 months, held on Saturdays)

Spero Villioti Elite Design Academy

Diploma in Fashion and Bachelor of Fashion (both for 3 years), and 18 short courses

Studio 05 Fashion School

Diploma (3 years full time or part time) and short courses in Fashion Buying and Merchandising, Fashion Styling, Textile Design, Pattern Construction, Garment Construction and many more

Design Academy of Fashion 

Fashion Diploma (3 years), Higher Certificate in Fashion (1 year), and short courses in Pattern Making and Garment Construction, Illustration and Computer-Aided Design, Styling and Fashion Photography, and Computer-Aided Design 2 (4 to 8 weeks)

Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion

Diploma and Advanced Diploma in Fashion and short courses such as Introduction to Fashion Design and Textile