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Q&A: iFele founder Reggie Xaba has given a traditional sandal a new look

by | Feb 19, 2021

Using shoes as his medium of expression, Reggie Xaba has interpreted a traditional shoe, applying modern materials to make a contemporary item. Born in Durban, he grew up in Umlazi township and graduated in clothing design from the Natal Technikon (which is now Durban University of Technology). Reggie worked for many years in Cape Town as a buyer for major retailers before settling in Durban with his family. He founded Zetu Shoes which produces the beloved iFele sandals. Here he tells us more.

How does iFele reflect the African continent?

As a modern interpretation of iBadada, it explores the dynamic Zulu culture and heritage. Izimbadada sandals were originally created by Zulu migrant workers who in lived in hostels in Johannesburg and Durban. When they moved into cities, they wanted to wear shoes that gave them dignity. These shoes have a strong emphasis on crafting, especially the decorative styles of the Zulu but have Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele influences too. Design influences merge and fuse in the process of creating new products. Eventually iFele will start to establish its own heritage. This is how contemporary culture enriches history and plants the seeds for tomorrow’s creators. It’s a cycle of creation and re-interpretation.

What is unique about your modernised imbadada?

Materials and technical production separates iFele imbadada from original imbadadas sandals which are crafted from found materials such as car tires and vinyl flooring. These materials are not suitable for a modern consumer and cannot be controlled in factory production. Our sandals are world class luxury products that fit effortlessly with current fashion trends. Most of our styles have evolved from the traditional three strap sandal to platforms, gladiator styles and slides in line with current trends.

What challenges have you had to overcome?

South African mainstream retailers don’t support local, original brands. Nothing has changed after 20 years in the industry. They see us as fringe products worthy of charity and for their PR purposes. This short sightedness frustrates me and most other local designers. In 2016, we were identified by GQ magazine as one of the top brands to watch globally while not being properly stocked in local shops. More shops stock iFele in Europe than in SA. It is a very sad form of self hate that we have to live through. Unfortunately for all of us, this is a missed opportunity to create a vibrant local industry that can create jobs and promote local culture.

What materials do you use, are they sustainable and from where are they sourced?

We mainly use local materials such as leather and local synthetic rubber. We also use non-footwear industrial materials such as upholstery off-cuts and metal trims which we repurpose into modern products. Sustainable practices alone won’t keep you in the market, your creative input comes first. However, all producers have to be sustainable when making products. You will do well promoting your beautiful, desirable products as sustainable. We continuously find ways to improve the sustainability of our product. Because of who we are, we explore indigenous Zulu crafting which improves our production process. We include traditional beading and other indigenous handwork as much as possible because it sets us apart. This is good, especially for our export market.

Why do you partner with tertiary institutions?

I have a passion for this country and teaching is one of the most fulfilling things you can do to empower young people. The uMfolozi College in Richards Bay partnered with us because they have a mandate to teach artisans in South Africa. This is where our shoes are manufactured. There is currently no proper college for shoe making and design in South Africa. This is one of my frustrations. I always wanted to teach new shoe designers so that the industry can attract new talent. Shoe design is a beautiful rich and fulfilling profession.

What are your top three sustainable brands?

  • Cool Tabs @cool_tabs
  • VANKLAN @vanklan_
  • Plasticity @plasticity_

With two decades of experience, what advice can you offer designers starting out?

Do you research about art history. Spend time with your craft and get better at it. Be up to date with current developments in your industry. And lastly, have an Instagram account to publish what you do. Designers must spend less time in front of the camera. Get a muse if you have to. Don’t make yourself the subject of your work.

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