Mending clothes goes a long way in increasing the longevity of our clothes. For centuries, tailors have been maintaining our clothing. To explore the role of tailors in our fashion ecosystems, I visited three tailors living in two different townships in Cape Town – Khayelitsha and Mfuleni. They earn a living through refashioning, restyling, and reviving clothes.
Through these conversations, I hope we can all learn more about the tailoring business, the challenges, the joys, and its role in making our clothes last longer.
JAFALI (JERRY) UNYOLO
The first tailor I met with was Jafali Unyolo in Khayelitsha.
Jafali – or Jerry, as he is known – was born and raised in Malawi. In 2018, he left his home country for South Africa to make a living so he can provide for his family. The following year, he launched his business and started mending clothes.
“Being in a foreign country means that we face many challenges. Discrimination is the biggest of them,” Jerry says. Despite these adversities, Jerry has grown his business and recently he employed an assistant to ease the workload.
Jerry is not just an ordinary tailor who mends and alters garments. He can bring any image of a garment to life. He found his love for fashion at a young age and learnt how to sew at a market near his home.
“I give confidence to women by designing the best fashionable outfits for them to slay, stand out, dazzle, and become the centre of attention. A confidant woman is an empowered one,” says Jerry.
“Jerry does what you ask for and more. He knows what suits you and what doesn’t,” one of his customers (who prefers to remain anonymous says.
Next, I visited James Lebwede who is a Malawian tailor in Khayelitsha. James was born in a village called Chimiko, in Malawi. After finishing his studies at Mitengo Technical, as a designer, he left home in 2014 to look for a job in South Africa.
James worked for an employer for four years before he opened his own business in 2019. “Starting a business is always a challenge, especially when you are an immigrant. You are mistreated, robbed, and called names by people who are struggling too,” James says. Despite this, James finds that being able to send money home to his family – while doing what he loves – is the most rewarding part of his work.
James typically makes school uniforms, church gowns, tracksuits, and amadaki (Xhosa wife attire) using different types of materials, such as DaGama textiles and jersey fabrics.
James notes that his work is not only about having the skill set to fix clothes. “My work is about giving someone the confidence to stand out. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your customers happy,” adds James.
The last tailor I interviewed was Chumani Beja. Residing in Mfuleni, Chumani was born and raised in Cape Town. She developed a love for fashion by watching her grandmother, who worked as a tailor, as she altered clothes.
Although she’d never been taught, she decided to put her skills to the test by using her grandmother’s sewing machine to experiment with her own clothes and mend them herself. “I always wanted to look different from others and be able to wear what slim girls wore, but with a touch of my own signature style,” Chumani says.
As she made clothes for herself and her family members, she noticed herself getting better at sewing. So, she bought herself a sewing machine and started making garments for others. Being self-employed, Chumani is able to make a living for herself and, she says, “being able to make things happen for yourself, rather than wait for someone else, is remarkably powerful.”
Chumani adapts her approach to each project, depending on what the customer wants and which materials they prefer. Most of her customers ask for Neoprene or Shweshwe, which she sources from Thembani Fabric Store in Mitchells Plain.
“Chumani is more than a tailor. She challenges society’s norms when it comes to what society says curvy girls can or can’t wear by creating pieces that make us feel confident and comfortable in our own skin,” says one of Chumani’s customers.
Tailors are a vital part of our fashion ecosystem. They help us feel confident in the clothing we wear, and they give our well-worn clothes a second lease on life. Hopefully, this inspires you to seek out your local tailors and support the work that they do as we all explore ways to make our loved clothes last.
- All images were taken in Jerry’s Tailoring Shop by Jackie May