By Motlabana Monnakgotla
The small-towner started off as a model, then ventured into fashion, constructing Afro-urban clothing the unconventional way. Lebogang Makgale is a creative on a mission.
In Johannesburg’s cultural and creative nerve center that is Newtown, a chic district in the inner city with bustling clubs, cafés and art galleries, Lebogang Makgale’s fashion studio is an apt adornment.
The curious, vibrant young passers-by outside his door often stop to inspect his garments but to the 27-year-old fashionista, the uncontested center-piece in his bright blue studio is a hard-working sewing machine he bought for $34. It stands as a symbol of hope that gave fresh impetus to his life – and continues to be his career’s biggest investment, carefully-positioned in a corner enveloped by photographs from his first fashion collection.
The space is otherwise strewn with clothes, fabric and accounting books. He is at ease with each of these objects. After all, his journey started studying accountancy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), a venerable higher learning institution located close to where he is today.
Long before that, in high school, the Soweto-born creative artiste called himself ‘MacGale’, a play on his surname, which he artfully inscribed on classroom desks. The name stuck.
It must have been ordained. Today, that’s also the name of his fashion brand.
“A bookworm, shy and not very social” in school, fortunately, his interest in sport and athletics ensured he always had a coterie of friends and followers. But he also had another quality that endeared him to them – his interest in fashion and his distinct sartorial sense.
He wanted to be a sports star, and his parents wanted him to become a chartered accountant, but this was the only talent – like his self-styled sobriquet – that stuck, and carried him through his growing years.
He pursued an extended diploma in accounting, but Makgale felt out of place; accounting was dull and gloomy in comparison with the myriad colors of the fashion world.
“About seven months into the course, a classmate told me that I am tall and had style and advised me to take on modeling. I took it seriously and joined an agency. They [the agencies] told me I am not tall enough, not masculine enough, but I persisted despite everything being shut out,” recalls Makgale when we meet him one warm January afternoon in Johennesburg.
Floyd Manotoano, known in South Africa’s emancipated fashion circuit as Floyd Avenue and winner of the GQ Scouting Menswear Competition in 2017, gave Makgale the modeling platform, and he didn’t look back.
His trips to designers’ studios for fittings and fashion shows only grew his innate love for couture.
“I was still enrolled at UJ but not going to class, I was going to studio. My transport fare and lunch money were used to buy fabric. We always had a plan showcasing across Johannesburg and always buying fabric. A friend also taught me how to thread a sewing machine. I was also introduced to styling and started consulting to make outfits for matric dances,” says Makgale.
The networking and mingling in the fashion world helped. He thereby met a tailor who sold him his sewing machine for $34. Now, all he needed was to perfect his craft.
He turned to technology, and characteristically for a youngster in the digital age, sought the help of online tutorials to learn to sew. He debuted with an ethnic Ndebele print collection.
In 2013, reality kicked in. His father asked for his varsity results. He had to break the news to him. That he was not keen on accounting, and he had been bunking classes. His concerned father asked him: “There are a lot of designers, how are you going to make money?”
He had enrolled at a fashion school with little knowledge and experience of the industry. But he was beginning to make an impression with his clothes.
Two years in, Makgale dropped out to focus on the business side of fashion. Being blogged about and being known on the streets wasn’t paying the bills; he had to make ends meet.
“I disappeared and disconnected from the street to focus on the brand, MacGale. I had to start from scratch. I had to create a client base, a target market. I slowly established myself as a professional fashion designer. That’s when the true identity of the brand evolved, in 2015,” he says.
During his off-grid period, he worked on a collection for BackToTheCity, South Africa’s biggest annual hip-hop and street culture festival. 2015 was a definitive year for him; he tailored an African-inspired street wear collection and incorporated it with plastic.
Soon after, fashion photographer Chris Saunders approached him. He was shooting for an international magazine profiling the coolest kids in Johannesburg. Saunders selected Makgale and that became part of a showcase at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.
Business started trickling in; Makgale was making matric dance suits, whilst polishing his designing skills.
“There was a time when that was the only kind of work I would be getting. It wasn’t fun, but it made business sense because the matric boys would refer everyone to me,” he recalls.
In 2015, he was also introduced to cycling by a long-time friend and athlete. His original love for sport was stoked. But there again, his love for fashion prevailed.
“Cycling equipment and kits are expensive. The color combinations didn’t make sense to me, so I made [comfortable clothes] I could cycle in that would also look cool. I started with jackets with pockets at the back, then shorts with tights that go underneath. I then decided to make a fashionable active wear collection,” he says.
About a year later, this got the attention of Moja Nation, an advertising agency working on the ‘Let Wonder Out’ campaign for Oreo cookies. This was going to be Makgale’s first corporate gig.
Despite the challenges he faced, Oreo loved his work and asked him to work on their second campaign. This time, he was more experienced and able to execute the whole order by himself.
He worked on it whilst helping Floyd Avenue with his 2017 South Africa Fashion Week collection.
“I worked with Lebo when I won the GQ award. I’ve known him for a long time; I even made his matric dance suit that was inspired by Kanye West. I’ve seen his growth; he has invested in his craft. I knew him as a student at UJ. Years later, we started meeting at fashion events and started working together,” says Floyd Avenue.
In 2017, Makgale was also part of a TV show, 100 Percent Youth, on SABC1, which documented his sourcing and creation processes.
“I came across striped fabric and fell in love with it. I made a striped jacket live on camera. Little did I know that was the beginning of an era, I started my stripe journey,” he recalls.
The stripes inspired his tailored suits, not of the traditional kind, but also motivated by waistcoats, and women’s wear like corsets and dungarees. This was his third official collection.
After 100 Percent Youth was aired, he started receiving more orders for his suits and he was soon appearing in season two of SABC’s fashion reality TV show Raw Silk. He made it to the top five and that too got him traction and customers.
By this point, he had developed working relationships with hip and happening local celebrities such as Khetsiwe Morgan, also known as DJ Doowap. Most of the women’s garments that Makgale creates are for her. He had never seen himself crafting womenswear until Raw Silk happened.
“I don’t like shopping at the mall; I’m about creating things that no one wears, so I was trying to find a tailor for the longest time. My boyfriend told me about Lebo’s collection, I met him and he is super-easy to work with. He is super-honest and tells me when something isn’t going to work. The first garment he made for me was for the Metro FM Awards in 2017, he made a three-piece garment using Swati fabric,” says DJ Doowap.
Makgale has expanded his business since and is working on costume design for local and international advertising campaigns. His journey started in an accounting classroom. But today, he is a passionate fashion entrepreneur on his way up. He may not be balancing books, but he is certainly on the money.