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Pandemic Stories- Tshepo Mohlala

June 10, 2020
June 10, 2020 Kurt Schroder

Pandemic Stories- Tshepo Mohlala

We take a look into the impact on the lives and livelihoods of people during the COVID-19 lock-down.

The unprecedented COVID 19 Virus and subsequent Lock-down has had drastic and differing effects on people in South Africa. This series aims to explore that space, and document a bit of what life looks like during Lock-down in South Africa. All necessary health & safety precautions were maintained in the production of this article, and all persons involved had legal permits to work and travel.

The story is told and was photographed by Bernard Brand.

I very recently was introduced to Tshepo Mohlala via a friend of a friend when I was looking to tell stories about creatives, businesses, artists, entrepreneurs and organizations trying to make it through the Covid-19 pandemic and how business and life is being changed because of it.

There’s a fire and a deep sense of caring I got from Tshepo whilst interviewing him and listening to his answers. It makes sense knowing that he was raised by three women; his mother, grandmother and aunt. You can read more about Tshepo and his story on his website, Tshepo Jeans.

Let’s get into it.

BB: What have you learned about yourself during this time?

TM: One of the biggest things I think I’ve learned is that I care. I never thought that I did. The first couple days of the lockdown were quite tough. And the nature of where the shop/factory is located, it’s a bit of a tourist destination and there were obviously no more tourists. 

And the biggest worry was that I would need to let people go who depend on this job to feed their families. I really care about these people and it made me realize why I got into business in the first place.

This is definitely a time where entrepreneurs and business owners are being tested; if you’re here to make a profit or if you’re trying to make an impact in the community. I think what I’ve also learned is; what is good for society or the community is good for business and vice versa.

We’re almost going back to the beginning and going back to the drawing board and figuring out why we’re here and why we are doing this: personal experience, slow fashion. We’re very selective with who we partner with. For example, the guy producing our T-shirts employs ±200 women in a small community just beyond Pretoria”.

“This is a purpose-driven business above all else and I was reminded why I am here and what purpose I am serving and that I care about these people that helped me build this”.
We’re building a world class brand in the “ghetto”. Ha ha.

BB: What don’t you miss about life before the pandemic?

TM: I don’t miss the chase. It feels like you’re running, but you dunno where. I’m happy that things are slow paced, you pay more attention to things that matter most. You realize what’s real and what’s not.

I went into quarantine with my family, my mother, sister and niece. We cooked, sang together and played games. It got me thinking, I’m doing what I do for these people, on a micro scale. That’s why I started this. If I can give back to my mom that’s one of the best things I’ve experienced.

On Art…

I mentioned to Tshepo that it felt like my art didn’t matter. And I know that sounds a little silly perhaps. He had the following response.

“Humans are addicted to stories and that’s the thing about art; it tells a story. It’s not tangible, it’s a feeling and that’s what we’re trying to do in there. Trying to build this feeling. The product is an end thing that you can feel and touch and wear, but it’s so much more than that for me”.

BB: That leads me to this question then; why denim and why does it make you feel like you can’t put it into words?

TM: I studied film making – as I’ve mentioned before I love story telling – and dropped out, then I went and studied fashion and had to drop out because of finances. I worked as a stylist for some time. I loved suits. I wore 3-piece suits every day.

I didn’t have work, but I’d wake up every day, put on that suit, go to a coffee shop and think. I then stopped wearing suits and went back to being “ordinary”. There’s this “thing” about suits, it’s almost authoritarian you know? I feel that you are at your “realest” when you are wearing a pair of jeans. Suits are imposing.

“And I felt that if I wanted to change the world that I needed to be in jeans”.

Everybody loves jeans. Whether you are rich or poor, black, white, colored, it doesn’t matter, everyone has a pair of jeans. My first pair of jeans was a Levi’s 511 and I still remember them. They were my favorite jeans.

I was the first guy in our township who owned a pair of skinny jeans and oh man, was I laughed at? 
A couple of months later those same guys came to me and asked, “where do you buy your clothes”? Ha ha.

Jeans feel universal. You can tell a story about a pair of jeans and that’s what I want to capture with this brand. Money and status can’t buy it. That’s the feeling I want to create.

BB: What has kept you hopeful when it feels like everything has fallen apart?

TM: I’m crazy… Ha ha! You can’t be normal to do this thing. This is for the crazy people. I live a life of purpose and that keeps me going. We get to tell the story of prior, during and after the pandemic.

 No matter how difficult it is, there is an opportunity. The entire world has the same story right now. I’m a very optimistic person. This is difficult growth period, but after years of a seed being trapped in concrete it cracks open and pops out. We just need to do that.

Being surrounded by the people here at Victoria Yards is so unbelievable. Driving here feels weird. We’re not in Sandton, we’re difficult to find and then you walk in here and you’re like, “WOW”.

Every day I wake up and I am excited and I’m ready to go.

My time with Tshepo was brief. It was a freezing Tuesday morning as we had just had a cold front roll in the previous evening. He was gracious with his answers and time and I want to thank him for that. There may be some exciting things on the horizon, but more on that at a later stage.

Thank you for reading.

Editors Note: Answers edited for conciseness.