Award-winning designer Thabo Makhetha talks with Toka Hlongwane about transcending the cultural narrative of her Lesotho-inspired clothing brand. 

In just over a decade the Basotho blanket has gone from being an item exclusively worn by the southern African Basotho tribe, to being a global luxurious African fashion statement, all thanks to the genius of fashion designer and entrepreneur Thabo Makhethata-Kwinana.

No ordinary African designer, Makhethata-Kwinana’s other accolades include her recognition as one of the top 40 under 40 business leaders by the Nelson Mandela Bay Business chamber, as well as her gaining an ImpACT Award for Design in 2014. Born in Lesotho and raised in South Africa, Makhethata-Kwinana has carried her heritage everywhere, from her days of making dresses for her dolls, then dress patterns for her 16-year-old classmates, to designing for runways in Vancouver and Europe. All has played a pivotal role in her success. 

As an inspiration for her designs, the Basotho blanket is a garment that has great historical significance in the lives of the Basotho. Basotho had always worn blankets due to the cold location of the Kingdom of Lesotho, a mountainous region in the middle of South Africa. However, most of the blankets worn in yesteryear Lesotho were made out of animal hide. The contemporary blankets you see adorned by the Basotho of today was a gift given to Moshoeshoe, the first King of Lesotho by a trader only known as Howell. The British traders had been selling similar blankets in the region and when the king wore it over his shoulders, like he wore his ceremonial leopard skin, giving the blankets royal status.    

At the time, Southern Africa was caught in a 19th century colonial scramble between the British and the Dutch breakaway crusaders known as the Voortrekkers – later known as the Afrikaaners – and the Basotho’s biggest threat at the time. Moshoeshoe reached out to Queen Victoria and requested her protection from the encroaching Afrikaaner threat. Thus in 1868 Basotholand became a British protectorate and remained such for 98 years. In the 1897 diamond jubilee Queen Victoria sent Moshoeshoe’s successor King Letsie a blanket as a gift. Known as Lefitori (Victoria Blanket) it was initially designed and manufactured by the Wormald and Walker blanket mills in Yorkshire, UK. 

In a recent conversation, Makhethata-Kwinana elaborated on how her brand has evolved since launching it just over a decade ago. 

How have your designs evolved from the initial pieces you produced?

The range I initially came out with only had three pieces. It was a women only range with far more detail. We put a lot of piping into the work as well as top stitching, but when we did the costing, we realized it was quite expensive and it also took more time to make each piece.  Also, costumers would come back with suggestions, or request custom made garments with long sleeves, or a trench coat with the Basotho blanket material. So over time, we started to get an idea of what the market wanted and what the latest trends are, and that’s how the designs evolved from just capes and coats to Samurai vests to scatter cushions.  

Elle Magazine’s editor Jackie Burger appeared at the Luis Vuitton show at Paris Fashion Week, wearing your cape. How did this change the trajectory of your brand? 

I think Jackie Burger wearing my cape and actually writing about it in Elle, gave our brand an approval stamp. The media traction from what she did was immense. You know as creatives we never really get love and appreciation in our hometowns until someone from outside with influence comes in and says this person is really worth it. Jackie is that person that came out and said this designer is worth the money, and after that we saw a big jump in sales as well as a lot of global attention.  

What fabrics do you use for the range, and how do they link with luxury from a cultural and contemporary design point of view?  

For me luxury is something that is timeless, handcrafted and something that tells a story. I have always liked using heritage in my designs, even before I started using the Basotho blanket. At some point I used Eskimo designs. When you use culture and heritage its narrative transcends time, and since our garments are handcrafted and unique in the narrative they tell, they have become contemporary and luxurious. 

There are quite a few designs of the Basotho blankets I typically use – the black and white blanket with the red stripes I used for the Bale (Basotho female initiates and their journey into womanhood) collection is called Motlatsi. This blanket has a distinctive houndstooth pattern on the outside of it as well as some hearts towards the centre. It was created to honour the birth of Crown Prince Lerotholi in 2007. The name Motlatsi means successor. 

Another blanket we use is the Morena as well as the Seana marena. It is one of the most popular blankets in Lesotho; it and Lefitori (Victoria England) are the oldest standing among the Basotho blankets, and were initially only worn by royalty and high borns. They are still the most expensive blankets to buy at retail price along with Motlatsi. Currently I am also using the Kharetsa, which has an aloe and a shield pattern on it. I’m using it across the different colours. 

What is your most memorable and favorite piece in your collection?

It has to be butterfly cape. The initial sample was short, but it had lot of material at the top. Like I said, we were using a lot of piping at the time, so I just pulled it down to the centre and put giant safety pins on it and it made a butterfly-like shape and we liked it. We just hand tacked the pieces into place and that’s how that design was born. Another favorite of mine is the dress coat. It’s actually a beautiful fitted trench with a classic flared hemline.

How would you describe the design scene in Lesotho? 

I believe it’s growing. You do find a couple of designers here and there making amazing pieces. Although I’m based in Cape Town, I have been keeping an eye on it. We are still yet to see our brands sold in major retail stores, so that still needs to happen.  

What has been the highlight of Thabo Makhetha as a brand since its inception in 2009?

Being recognized by Jackie Burger has to be one of the biggest highlights; also being invited to showcase in Vancouver Fashion Week in 2014 as our first official runway show. The latest highlight is producing my own print called the Dikeledi, named after my late grandmother. It showcases our motif from the Thabo Makhetha logo and has my grandmother’s prayer stick going across the emblem. 

Aside from commercial success and the accolades you have collected, what does being the name and soul behind the Thabo Makhetha brand mean to you?

I think after 11 years the brand and what it means to me has changed quite significantly. Now I think about what my social responsibilities are outside of just making clothes. I am more concerned with the impact I have on people mentally and their lives in general. Clothes have been a medium I have been able to use to share the message of our culture and heritage and to let our people know that we can take anything of ours and make it beautiful and desirable to the world.    

All images courtesy of Thabo Makhetha.