*Vuyelwa Mabena, the Zimbabwean who dressed Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana

VUYELWA Mabena first demonstrated her exceptional ability for tailoring at the age of ten, when she volunteered to assist her mother in her business in Bulawayo’s city centre.

She saw her mother’s custom-made items as nothing but a work of art and wanted to be just like her.

Today, the passion and drive to join pieces of fabric together to come up with an amazing finished product have given Mabena the chance to sew for the royal families in the UK and other parts of Europe.

The 53-year-old is now racking up accolades for the skill she found and developed when she was just a child.

“I started designing at the age of 10, my mother used to have a shop in the city centre. I used to help my mother in her shop, I was a very talented person in designing because this was something that I learned from my mother rather than from school. When I was at St Columbu’s High School, my headmistress always encouraged me to take a teaching course in fashion and fabrics but unfortunately that never happened.

“In 1992, I left the country for the United Kingdom, when I got there, I tried to go to university or college but it was so hard because I was an overseas student and the fees were higher. Luckily, I got a job with a milliner designer who afforded me in-house training. I worked for her for 13 years. In those 13 years, I was lucky to work for other Milliner designers. I worked for Philip Somerville, Frederick Fox and Della Hats,” said Mabena.

The Milliner designers had royal warrants which meant that they could design for the Royal family.

“These designers were granted a royal warrant. A royal warrant is a warrant that allows designers to design for the royal family or any other products for the royal family. So, in those 13 years, I worked for two companies that had royal warrants. I was able to make hats for the royal family. I made hats for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana from 1993 to 1995 before Lady Diana passed away.

“I never had qualifications to work as a Milliner designer but I was in-house trained, I was so lucky because this is something that you cannot learn at college. I then left design and went for nursing but I never finished nursing. I just took some time off from everything. During that time, I had a baby so I was a stay home mother,” she said.

Mabena later worked for a company that had a royal warrant to design for royal families in Europe.

“In 2000, I went back to design to work for a company called London Patey limited, this company also had a royal warrant; they used to make hats for the navy, air force and royal regiment all over the UK.

The company also had a warrant for royal families in Europe and they designed for Denmark and Spain. Having the opportunity to work for such an organisation was very big for me.

“In 2010 I went to college and enrolled in Art and design and I studied for three years, two years later I went to the London University of Art where I attained my degree. As a student at the University, I was employed by the University to work for summer schools and when I graduated in 2015, I was offered a job as a specialist technician so I have been doing this job to date,” said Mabena.

She said she annually tailors for tennis players that take part in the Wimbledon Championships, which is graded as the oldest tennis tournament in the world and is widely regarded as the most prestigious.

“I, however, freelance at the same time, and I have my brand so this has been my journey in designing. I am subcontracted by Ralph Lauren who has got a contract with Wimbledon so we have been doing it for years. I have been working for Ralph for the past three years and this is ongoing every year when they have their Wimbledon Championships in July of each year.

“The experience is exciting but there is so much work, we work so hard. We only work for seven days. When we are working, we work from 8am to 2am the next day. The work has to be up to standard, it’s a challenging experience and I love it. This year they changed the design, I don’t design for Ralph Lauren but I’m a tailor for him,” she narrated.

Mabena has also worked with globally recognised companies like Dior and Nylander Couture.

“I have managed to do projects for Dior, I have worked for Nylander Haute Couture where I had an opportunity to work for a lot of fashion houses.

I had the experience to make clothes for footballers and artistes. I worked for a company that supplied luxury shops like Harrods, John Lewis, and Liberty. At the same time, I do all this work, I am pushing my brand called VM Vuyelwa Mabena.

“The biggest challenge l have faced is employing staff. Most of the people l work with are university graduates and paying them is a challenge because their pay is very high. Most of the time the workload is too much for one person. And the other thing is that my designs are limited editions l do not like my design to be everywhere so people always ask me how l make money. I provide a service rather than a product,” said Mabena.

Mabena said she is a proud product of Bulawayo.

“I was born in Mpilo hospital in Bulawayo and grew up in Mzilikazi. I did my primary school at Lozikeyi.

I went to Inyathi High School for my secondary. I also went to St Columba’s for advanced level. I proceeded to Bulawayo Polytechnic where I studied Business Studies. When l was growing up in the 70s my dad was a music producer so l grew up in a house that was full of music.

“I love listening to music and l developed a love to design and tailor for musicians. I design for artists here in the UK and Zimbabwe. I have had the privilege to design for Songs of Lozikeyi, for Nkwali, for Thandy Dlana, and for Amaqaqa. I am a Milliner designer, in women’s wear, men’s wear, and custom design. I would love one day to share my expertise with my fellow Zimbabweans in Bulawayo.”

“Music has always played a key role in shaping my identity. Two years ago, we wanted to have a show here in London celebrating 100 years of the passing away of Queen Lozikeyi. I asked Nkwali if she could compose a song for the catwalk, she composed Halala Lozikeyi which was a hit, even the President loved the song. It has been performed at State House in Harare and Dubai expo 2020 this year.

Mabena said her greatest achievement is grooming upcoming designers.

“My greatest achievement is seeing students leaving university every year and becoming the greatest designers in the world. In the university where I work, we have students from all over the world and of different nationalities. l have the greatest moments learning a lot of different things and l get inspiration from everything. I would love to have things made in Zimbabwe and marketed around the world,” said Mabena.

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