Designer Eleazer Radebe started his working life as a researcher in HIV / AIDS. It was another 10 years before he launched into fashion in 2012. While he wants to focus on natural fibres, sustainable fabrics are expensive in South Africa, and for many designers they are unaffordable. Now, Eleazer’s focus is on re-using waste and creating good quality trans-seasonal designs. He currently gives waste to Elaine Manne who uses it to stuff cushions. Eleazer uses big offcuts to make new garments, and he refashions old designs into new one. He recently made a pair of trousers and a skirt for a client from a dress he had previously made her.
We caught up with the Durban-born designer and founder of By ELE Apparel and Interiors to find out more about his challenges, his approach to design and sustainability, and to ask about the Trans-Seasonal 21 collection Sunset, Sunrise. Dusk ‘til Dawn which is intended to soothe our souls during tough times. The press release explains that, “It serves as a reminder that no matter how gloomy things may be, the sun eventually comes and when it does may we bask in it and cherish and the beauty of life.”
Briefly tell us when, why and how your brand was founded?
After an intense decade in the medical research field, I felt it was time for a change of direction. In 2010 I studied interior design. In my second year I entered the Eskom Lighting competition and was awarded second place for my standing light, Love Affair, which launched my design career. After a few years of volunteering and working from my home studio making bespoke designs, I moved to a Woodstock [Cape Town] showroom.
What motivates and inspires you?
Growing up I used to dress and style my mom. But, when it was time to make career decisions, it was necessary to make a living. It so happened that at the time my family had been heavily impacted by HIV/AIDS, hence I followed a career in HIV/AIDS research. Now that I’m a designer I’m following a different path of enquiry: I am inquisitive about my background and my place on the African continent. I’ve since learned that, most of us have very little knowledge of who we are and where we come from. I believe it is time we celebrate our South African/African history and heritage by being ourselves. At By ELE we embrace the globe and all it has to offer yet inspiration remains proudly South African and authentically African. This is reflected in the silhouettes, colours, prints and texture we use in our collections
What materials do you use and from where are they sourced?
I’m inspired by natural fabrics that work with our climate. Prints also speak to me. As my inspiration is the African continent, I have been learning a lot about which fabrics come from the continent and how they came about. We are moving closer to our dream of working purely with linens, cottons and silks which are made on the continent. For now, we rely on mainly Cape Town fabric suppliers.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on our creativity and on our business. Fortunately, we have survived because we had some savings and a dedicated team. Patrons only trust local brands once they have proved themselves in Europe or the USA. Locally, we’ve had better success in Johannesburg rather than Cape Town. We attribute this to buying power and the fact our designs are mostly for people who want to stand out from the crowd.
Your design appears delicate at a glance, but richly layered and textured, do they reflect you, Eleazer?
I’m so glad that comes through. Beyond me, I believe they reflect us as a people and the societies in which we live. Our worlds are very complex and layered. We want to make your job dressing up easier yet reflect the mood you intend to be in, the places you’re going and most of all, what it is that you want to say to the world. It can also be your armour when you feel a bit fragile.
The words “African culture” tell many different story, what story are you telling with your design?
My intention is to educate Africans about where we come from – our heritage – as we look to the future. My hope is that this will instil pride in our cultures and how similar they are. This speaks of how we are the same people because creativity has no borders. I would love for us to buy our own and not what’s been sold to us by other continents. I think there is a lot that we need to tap into with regards to “African Culture” and one of the ways in which we can do this is through our presentation, our image, our fashion. It is my intention to be grateful for every opportunity presented to me. And as I begin a journey of healing myself and others, I know my work will start reflecting this. My intention is that this work will be a vehicle of finding healing for myself and all those who partake in it.
Tell us about your most recent collection?
I viewed this collection as a palate cleanser for what is coming up in our next one. With the pandemic, I wanted to offer something soothing, airy and appealing to the climate. We used a soft palette with whites, blues, khakis, foam green and prints that reflect the light mood we wanted to portray. In as much as we wanted to use linen exclusively, we had to overlap into some mixed breeds of cottons and chiffon to achieve the feeling of floating on clouds. This was a tough collection to create because of the stressful times – I pushed through with my amazing team as my support system.
Who are your top 3 local designers?
I’m inspired by Lunar because of its commitment to natural fabrics and amazing designs. I also look to Mantsho for her perseverance and for staying true to who she is as a designer. Imprint ZA has taught me to tell my story and not shy away from my truths. I have to add an additional one: I also love OneIAm for its textured and absolutely beautiful-in-its-simplicity-yet-intricate offerings.
What does ‘pleather’ mean?
Pleather simply means faux leather. The pleather we used is recycled plastic made into fabric.
How do we grow jobs and slow our use of resources?
I don’t have all the answers but I think one of the first areas we need to look at is growing the local manufacturing industry. So many factories that have been closing down since the opening of trade in the 90’s. We have the skills required and have the human capital to do this manufacturing. Our country has the capability to revive the industry if it commits to doing so. We also need to change the perception that buying local is for the affluent only. Local fashion need to be accessible to their markets.
What one word best describes sustainability for you?
Follow By Ele on Instagram.