Now in his 50’s, South African designer Steve Mandy was probably the most revolutionary of the more than 60 African and African-inspired designers who graced the catwalk during last week’s African Fashion Week London (AFWL). Unlike the other designers who cut and sew, Steve paints and bleaches. Garments are his natural canvas.
Steve quit the lucrative financial corporate world for the more glamourous but less financially attractive design world-except when you are at the top of the game. He still hopes to make it big very soon.
With South African music playing in the background and models show-casing some of his designs, Steve held the audience spell-bound, managing to paint the face of anti-aparthied activist and former South African president Nelson Mandela on the T-shirt of a model standing on the catwalk in seven minutes. He was rewarded with cheerful applause in the end.
Francis Ngwa spoke to Steve Mandy before he took to the catwalk. Excepts:
Q. Can you introduce yourself Steve
A. My name is Steve Mandy and I own a company called Steve Mandy Designs. I paint on clothing which is a completely different thing from designing garments. I don’t design any garments, I paint on them. I paint on them with fabric painting and I paint on them with bleach.
Some of the garments you see me displaying here are painted with fabric paint; some of them haven’t got any paint, that is bleach. What I therefore do is taking the fabric out of some garments rather than putting it in. I do just what you will do with any other type of painting whether it is oil painting, I use a paint brush, zip in bleach and paint.
Q. You mean what you do is, therefore, entirely different from what most designers do?
A. I am not sure but I think I am the only one in the world who is doing this for the moment.
Q. Why did you decide to do this type of revolutionary design?
A. I have always been doing fabric painting and I read a book which said sometimes you can use bleach instead of dye, so you are actually taking the colour out. So I figured that let me try painting in bleach and it worked. It is the most magnificent discovery I ever made. It’s been fantastic.
Q. Since your designs are so radically different from what most designers do, are you trainning others to make sure this continues long after you are no longer around?
A. I want to create something I call ‘my made revolution.’ This is a kind of my motto in terms of the clothing. You can see that in some of the clothing I am exhibiting here. I want to create a system where we go back to the basics from mass production to things that we produce using our own hands.
Q. But you will end up producing garments that might be far too expensive than mass produced clothing.
A. The secret is in speed. If you want to do what I am doing, you need to do this really very quickly. Anybody who wants to follow in my footsteps must have the skill and ability to paint very fast. If you can’t do that very quickly, your garments will be far too expensive for the ordinary buyer.
Q. How long do you generally take to paint or bleach one piece of clothing?
A. On the fashion shown later this evening (August 2, 2013), I will be doing a painting while the show is in progress. I have five minutes to do a picture of Nelson Mandela on a T-shirt that a model will be putting on. That should give you an idea of how long I take. I can do a painting in five minutes. (NB. I later timed Steve during the show. He used seven minutes to do the painting of Nelson Mandela on the T-shirt worn by a model and he received a standing ovation for his efforts).
Q. Before you went into painting and bleaching and generally messing up what others have already designed, I understand you were a financial adviser.
A. Yes, I was.
Q. So why did you leave a sector where you could make buckets of money in a very short time?
A. I discovered I could paint when I was 41. I painted alongside my financial planning business for a couple of years and then one of the designers I came across asked me to help him with his designs for one of the most prestigious fashion shows in South Africa and we won. I quit my job and started painting full time.
Q. Just being curious now. Are you making more money now as a designer than you did as a financial adviser?
A. I made far more money like a financial adviser. There is, however, more to life than money.
Q. Somebody is probably not very excited with your change in career?
A. Sure enough, I guess.
Q. Who’s that?
A. My wife of course. She however, now loves and supports what I do. Only I can’t afford some of the things I could afford before. That will obviously be frustrating to her but she is obviously very proud of what I do now. She owns her own money so that is really not a major problem at home.
Q. How do you intend to make your unique design painting into a profitable business?
A. First of all, it will come back to speed. If I could produce X amount of garments a day and sell the same X amount of garments very quickly, I am going to make money.
The other thing is the elevation of my name. As I become more well known, I will be able to charge a bit more for my garments and maybe I will be in a position where I will be able to make more money than I could do as a financial adviser.
Q. How soon do you think that is going to happen?
A. I am in trainning now, I should say and I can’t exactly tell how long this will last. One day I will become an artisan. I believe strongly that will happen and very soon too.
Q. Are you trainning new recruits in your designs?
A. Not at this point, no. I will like to eventually. I do give lessons on painting and arts but in terms of fabric painting, it is a very unforgiving medium and people are scared of it. You make a mark on an expensive garment; I sometimes paint on garments worth £400 – £500 and if you make a mess of it, that is £500 gone.
Q. When you paint on expensive garments, let’s say £500, how much will you end up selling it?
A. It could go for twice that price.
Q. Do you have clients who pay that kind of money for a garment?
A. Yes, of course.
Q. You should be making some good money then?
A. Not exactly. What happens is that a designer makes a dress, at that point in time, the dress is worth £400. I paint on it and the designer sells it for £800. The designer only pays me for the painting. I am constantly creating new designs. I, therefore, charge people for the time and the design I do on the garments.
Q. Seven years after you became a designer, what will you say is the greatest lesson you have learnt from the industry?
A. I think the most important thing is the diversity you can get out of it. People have been painting on canvasses for years and years and I come along and start painting on cotton and wool. Almost everything in my house is now painted, my settee, everything really.
Q. What advice would you give to others who would want to be paint designers like you?
A. I think courage is the main thing. You need to have courage to do something for which you might be criticised because you are going to get criticised. You must have courage to do something that might fail. You need to be able to enter and be courageous enough to act above that fear.
Q. What was the most expensive garment you ever painted on?
A. It was the wedding dress I designed for £400. I don’t know how much it was eventually sold for.
Q. And the cheapest?