‘People should expect me’ – Enhle Mbali on creating an extension of herself for SA fashion week

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Enhle rocked up her own pink flair at the casting call for models who'll showcase her work at the SA fashion Week.
Enhle rocked up her own pink flair at the casting call for models who'll showcase her work at the SA fashion Week.

Lights, camera, action.

The search is on for the faces that will walk down the SA fashion week stage. At a casting call held at Mesh Club in Rosebank, one of the designers that will showcase their work at the annual event, Enhle Mbali Mlotshwa strolls in.

Greeting everyone around the room warmly, she takes a seat and starts assessing the models as they catwalk up and down.

From the first group she sees, she already spots what she’s looking for and spends the rest of the time making selections in different shapes and sizes.

Speaking to the Drum after the casting, she says: “With each show that I do, I am very pedantic about what models I use and today I was looking for a very androgynous, caramel-skinned girl and someone that looks like they could be from South Africa, South Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Bali. It’s tangible but it looks international still and that’s exactly what I came for. I think I got some of that but also, I’m very fussy, there could be 70 models but if I know what I want, I’m going to hunt for what I want. I’m hunting from today; I got five girls and now I’m looking for the rest.”

The thespian designer says that 10 girls and three guys are what she’s looking for to showcase her ‘World Traveler’ collection.

Working hard and playing just as hard with the preparations, the excited designer says that “It has been so much fun. I don’t think I have applied too much pressure on myself like I usually do. The collection is based very loosely on taking fabrics and making them Petra, in a way that isn’t usually done. It’s about taking a table and turning it into a chair. It’s about taking a chair and turning it into a piece of art.”

She's holding the cards very close to her chest when it comes to revealing just what she'll be showcasing on the runway under her brand, Essie. However, she shares that the collection will be a true extension of herself as a creative.

“People should expect me, which is creative. I’d be the girl who wears stockings in summer, I’m the girl that takes consideration of the place I’m creating clothing for. I’m giving you a winter collection that can work throughout the year. I’m giving you a collection that can work throughout your summer day [and] your winter day especially when your day starts cold and as the day goes on, you strip and your day goes on further, you put it back on, so I’m taking into consideration climate change.”

Which will work well for the cities that have different seasons in one day. She hopes that when the lights go on for her collection to stride down the runway, fashionistas will enjoy her work. 

Last year, her Autumn/Winter collection received a standing ovation from the audiences at the SA fashion week and it was yet another nod from the fashion industry for her.

Read More | Enhle Mbali wins first international award as a fashion designer

This year will be the third time she’s part of the fashion week. Her first was in 2018 and her second was last year.

“The previous two shows were amazing with regards to reception. I mean, the first show I ever did, I was in Vogue Italia [and] they asked to take some of my clothes for their photoshoot. I was in San Francisco, I won my first international award of my first collection. Second collection, I loved it. I kept it to myself. This collection again, heels on throats!”

The 2023 SA fashion week will run take place at Mall of Africa from 20 April to 22 April and will feature many other local designers.

As for Enhle, her moves in the industry might seem like big ones for someone who is fairly new to fashion.

But creation clothing is nothing new to the award-winning designer, she says. 

Although known as an actress, she says fashion doesn’t come second to being a thespian but is rather a co-love to the art.

“The funny things is, it started a long time ago, I used to make my own clothes as a teenager. When I was 15, I made clothes for the Divas’ Concert – my very first [fashion show]. I don’t know what they were thinking, letting a 16-year-old create clothing,” she giggles.

She was recommended for the Divas Concert by KB, who’s also known as Keabetswe Motsilanyane. She remembers being told by the singer that “I don’t speak of what I do, I usually let people see what I do” and years later “I’m still the same”.

Enhle's love for designing clothes developed as a solution to a teenage girl’s wardrobe problems.

“My mother was a single mother, she wasn’t doing well. I didn’t have a great upbringing, it was a very hard one. I know I make it look graceful and I’m gracious about it and I don’t speak too much on it, but it forced me to find self at a very young age. It forced me to grow up at a very young age.”

She admits that “already in high school, I was making garments for myself”.

During civvies day, she would be worried about what to wear.

“Literally, I had nothing. I would then take the nothing and turn it into something and I think everyone just assumed that Enhle is from a well-off family because I made it look so graceful,” she bursts into laughter as she recalls how she got everyone fooled.

“I made poverty look good. I started off on a need-basis and not a want-basis. Here we are, 20-something odd years later, I’ve been on international magazines, international stages.”

Read More | 3 times Enhle Mbali has risen above adversity

The fashion bee stung her again later on in life when she couldn’t find what she wanted in retail shops.

“Essie started off as a maternity range. I was pregnant, I could not find what I want. I had sat in front of my sewing machine, I was tired so I thought ‘I’m not going to be doing this (sewing new maternity garments) every week’. [So] I found a lady who was a seamstress, I put things down on paper and people were very interested in where I got the garments from and Essie preggos was born and Essie apparel was born. Again, it was really a spark from, once again, an internal struggle that created external success.”

The brand started off as S.E (Simply Enhle) Preggos but when she realised that it was mispronounced, she broke the alphabets into a word down for everyone, hence Essie.

Enhle has been off our TV screens for some time now, but she is hard at work in growing her fashion brand, inspired by her two young sons.

“I have two young boys who express interest in having an Essie kids [range] so I said ‘It’s fine, you design five items per collection and let’s see where it takes you’ and so far, both of them have designed like one each so I might have to take over,” the mother proudly giggles yet again.

On the cards for her, she says, is definitely the launch of Essie kiddies range by the end of this year.

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