By Motlabana Monnakgotla
From glamorous Paris to gritty Johannesburg, Zazi Nyandeni arrived with $2,700 and updated sartorial skills to showcase haute couture on South Africa’s racks and runways.
With just $2,700 in her bank, transferred from her savings account in France, Zazi Nyandeni returned home to the South African fashion industry with her freshly-minted talent. But if Paris was school, Johannesburg proved to be university. Qualifying was never easy.
About 53kms from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is Constantia Kloof, a scenic, upmarket suburb in the West Rand, where we meet Nyandeni, the up-and-coming 25-year-old fashion entrepreneur whose brand, Zazi Luxury, has showcased in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.
“I wasn’t really introduced to fashion, but more so to art,” recalls Nyandeni of her early days. “Ever since primary school, I was exposed to paintings, drawings and music by my father when he would come back with artworks from his travels.”
She thought she was going to become a doctor growing up because of her choice of subjects in high school but still pursued design to stay close to art. Thankfully, her parents picked up that she was artistically-inclined and gave her their unstinted support.
In 2013, after high school, Nyandeni took the plane out of South Africa and went on to study fashion at ESMOD, an international fashion design and business school in Paris. She wanted to express herself without saying a word, and found her way. She spent close to six years there, studying full-time for the first three years and partially for the last two, whilst freelancing and interning for various companies in the glitzy city.
“I love to draw and not really to sew. For my first freelance job, I went for a company that would help me work on my weaknesses; I went to Loon Paris boutique and worked on my sewing techniques. They were very strict and meticulous when it came to sewing and I learned a lot about technique,” she says.
The intense training meant that even the inside of a garment had to be as exquisite as the outside and if the hand stitch was incorrect, she had to undo and redo it all over again.
“When I asked ‘aren’t we wasting material’, they would say ‘I’m wasting their time’,” she laughs.
The eager fashionista was juggling two jobs; the other was at a PR agency named DLX Paris, which was sourcing brands for international celebrities like American singer-songwriter Kelly Rowland.
She soon came to a realization that in fashion, there is nothing new, which is when she moved to fabric store Boutique Malhia Kent, a French manufacturer of haute couture.
Nyandeni has a soft spot for weaving. She clearly adores fabrics, and this is apparent in the weaving machine she has at her Constantia Kloof studio, placed in a corner of one of the work rooms.
She says her weaving differentiates her from the other designers, as she compares herself to South Africa’s Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa Africa and Greek fashion designer Mary Katrantzou.
“You can make a silhouette similar to somebody else but the real interesting part is the fabric, so Malhia Kent deals with fabric customization, and this is where I learned that in the world of fabric, you are two years ahead of the industry; like Chanel orders their fabric from Malhia Kent,” she says.
That was the space she wanted to be in.
So in between jobs, Nyandeni co-founded Garbage, a business that looked into environment-friendly garments.
“We wanted to speak on the notations of how do we pick up the fashion industry and say that there are other ways to look glamorous and chic and it doesn’t have to be wasteful and terrible to the environment.”
The business ran for a year and sold a few garments, but sadly, collapsed. That inspired the birth of an idea, one that would solely work for her, a business that would include all that she had learned from fashion school and the stylish streets of Paris. She had also personally worked with Katrantzou, building a portfolio and a first collection. She was ready and had under $2,700 in savings.
Nyandeni returned home to South Africa and registered her company in 2018.
“In my heart, I thought I was going to be able to buy sewing machines and a small car to travel back and forth for business, be able to get staple fabrics that people would love,” she says.
It was not the case, but she started the business despite a shortage of funds.
“I called it Zazi Luxury because it speaks to more of the inside and outside of a garment and the technique used which is the core of the business. The inside is about matching the outside; I should literally be able to wear it inside out, and if not, it’s not [a Zazi Luxury product].”
Her first client was South African comedienne Tumi Morake referred by a mutual friend, and later actress Zenande Mfenyana, but currently, her clients are also doctors, lawyers and drawn from the corporate world.
“In the beginning, the business was focused on couture and it developed a bit more into business such as television, dressing anchors, and we also have ready-to-wear garments. We are broadening the business to other boutiques too.”
Zazi Luxury recently showcased at South Africa Fashion Week. This year, she will be working on a fourth collection that will be both couture and basic women’s workwear garments but featuring the Zazi aesthetic.
Zazi Luxury currently employs seven young enthusiastic fashionistas; one of who is Lebohang Ketlele, who has worked with Nyandeni for two years.
“I am a dressmaker and stylist. I don’t think I would know the things I know now if I wasn’t working here, we have dressed celebrities and that is a great experience,” attests Ketlele.
Inspired in Paris, but made in Africa, Zazi seems to have made the cut.