September 20, 2011 / 3:53 PM / in 6 years

South African designer goes from shanty town to London

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African-born fashion designer and entrepreneur Lesego Malatsi has gone from stitching ready-to-wear garments in a Soweto township mall set amid shanties to savoring the sweet success of London's fashion week.

Malatsi had his first international show at the weekend in the British capital where he displayed a collection of new look African prints at the Fashions Finest event backed by Richard Branson's Virgin Unity initiative.

"Honestly you don't know how to prepare," Malatsi said from London in a telephone interview with Reuters.

Malatsi has taken a long road to London that started in a tiny home in Soweto, the segregated and impoverished township next to Johannesburg that grew under apartheid.

He first tried his hand at accounting after leaving high school but a stint at a cosmetics company altered his career aspirations.

"(It) changed my mind and how I saw things," he said.

He then studied fashion at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and has been making clothes since.

Money was tough to come by for a young man living in the wrong part of Africa's richest city but he eventually opened a store in a Soweto mall to sell his clothes.

He has 12 full-time staff at a firm called Mzansi Design Emporium and envisions having nearly 900 employees in the next five years.

His African print and inspired garments gained greater exposure after a Cambridge University student purchased garments from his Soweto store and later invited him to showcase his work at a university show.

The student then used him as a supplier for a British clothing store that featured African goods, which later helped him earn the London fashion week invitation.

"I used what I thought is authentically South Africa and colors representing the diversity of the country's culture," he said.

Malatsi said designers must be true to themselves and their roots if they are to impress an international audience.

"In many instances designers have been encouraged to try use the European model, which is the wrong approach. My understanding now is if you want to be a global competitor, you must bring something to compete with."

His show in London caused barely a ripple back home in South Africa, where his store still sells competitively priced clothing to customers more concerned about costs than the emerging fame of the designer behind them.

Store manager Dipuo Malatsi said: "Fame and popularity matter but our customers are used to buying (his clothes) at the normal prices."

Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Paul Casciato

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