BY CHRISTIAN ALLAIRE
A classic pair of jeans never goes out of style. The right pair can stay in your wardrobe for years—decades, even. “The most beautiful thing about jeans is that everybody wears jeans,” says designer Tshepo Mohlala, who goes by “the Jean Maker.” “Denim has no race: it’s a fabric that can unify the world.” However, while jeans have become a universal staple, the garment is still very much tied to Americana: U.S.-born brands, such as Levi’s, have been making them since the mid-1800s. Recognizing a dearth of South African–bred denim brands, Mohlala launched his own jean line, TSHEPO, in Johannesburg as a way to take the jean and recontextualize it within the African landscape. Since its inception in 2015, it has become one of the city’s most well-known brands.
Mohlala credits his love for denim to his family. Mohlala grew up in Tsakane, Gauteng, in a full household that included his mom, grandparents, and some of his cousins. He says being around this cast of characters, and particularly his grandmother, ignited an early interest in clothes. “The biggest thing that got me into fashion is that I come from a Christian background,” Mohlala says. “My grandma is a pastor, so every Sunday we had to dress up and look good. Dressing up was part of my life.” During those formative years, Mohlala also became infatuated with pop culture—specifically the R&B and hip-hop music videos that he would see on TV during the early 2000s. “It was a lifestyle that was unattainable: you can see it and you can dream it,” he says. Mohlala particularly remembers his aunt wearing similar styles that his favorite rappers would rock, and she had a penchant for stylish jeans. “She’d come home dressed in denim-on-denim, and she’d look like all the people that I used to see on TV,” he says.
When it came time for Mohlala to pursue a career, he naturally chose to pursue fashion design. In 2011, he dropped out of studying at the University of Johannesburg. He had learned the basics of sewing and pattern-making and decided to take a more hands-on approach by starting a brand with a couple of friends instead. “We did pretty well for young guys with no degrees in our hands,” says Mohlala. For about two years, he zeroed in on the art of jean-making specifically, something he felt was a much-needed craft in Johannesburg at the time. “In South Africa, there aren’t a lot of people with denim knowledge,” he says, adding that he also picked up techniques through courses at Amsterdam’s Jean School. “It’s really difficult to get information sometimes, because not everything that you want is on the internet.”
Slowly, Mohlala started becoming known for the jeans he would make and built up a customer base for his designs. “I started an Instagram account called ‘Tshepo the Jean Maker,’” he says. He decided to venture out on his own in 2015 and launched TSHEPO. “I took out a loan for 8,000 rands, which is about $400,” he says. “I started the brand with only 100 pairs of jeans. I used to sell them from my backpack. Then the business grew, and I used to do deliveries on a bike.” Now, TSHEPO is one of South Africa’s most popular denim labels.
Since its inception, the brand has focused on perfecting one specific style called the Presidential Slim Fit, a timeless silhouette that is available in four different washes and meant to flatter each customer. (Before the pandemic hit, Mohlala had planned on launching two new styles, but now those are on hold.) He says specializing on one pair has allowed him to perfect the craft. “Making a five-pocket jean probably looks so simple, but it could be one of the hardest things to put together,” he says.
At TSHEPO’s retail store, located in Johannesburg’s Victoria Yards area, customers can also come in to be fitted for a pair of bespoke jeans as well. “That’s where a lot of people who want to play come play with us,” he says. “Low cut, straight cut, bootleg—you name it.” After on-site tailors take the customer’s measurements, Mohlala’s custom jeans are cut from cottons sourced from Zimbabwe, then the pieces are assembled in a small factory in Japan. “Zimbabwe has one of the best cottons in the world,” he says. “If you’re talking about premium, luxury denim, Zimbabwe cotton is really top tier.”
As the brand continues to evolve, Mohlala plans to come out with new ready-to-wear styles. He also wants to continue encouraging a collaborative spirit between denim lovers in Johannesburg: most of his campaign images are shot on local denim enthusiasts, for instance. He says the appetite for jeans in Johannesburg alone continues to develop and grow by the day. “In South Africa, what type of denim that you wear represents who you are,” he says. “Denim here is as much of a staple as it is in the U.K. and America.”