Yawa Powerby Jess Henson / 27.05.2009
It’s a few years back. I’m standing in a queue in town. “Hello,” says a brown-eyed stranger out of the blue. She has a shaven head and long, gold loops hanging from her earlobes. She’s impeccably dressed in a tailored black chiffon blouse spotted with tiny pearls peeping out like dew drops in the dark. “I’m a jewellery and fashion designer. I’d like to show you my work.” She says. I smile benignly, bemused. She smiles genuinely back. She’s Yolanda Yawa, hawker, tailor; a foot soldier of dreams. In a few years she’s going to be fronting and styling the popular fusion band, CODA, and opening her own boutique in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town. But for now, she’s a girl from Gugulethu with HIV, two toddlers to love and feed and a desire to sing and sew. So how the hell is she going to make it happen? Here’s how:
You start in a church. Once a year, Yolanda would spruce up her church for their communal celebrations. Getting her own ideas about dressing and clothing across. “As a girl and teenager, I always wanted to bring the outside in – you know.” She asks rhetorically. Yet far from being boring, her community and church provided a safe way for young Yolanda to express her aesthetic and vocal abilities.
You walk the streets in your township, dressed to the nines in your own designs – creations that make no reference to magazine clippings or aspirational trends. People used to laugh at her heels and figure-hugging outfits. “I was young, and my body was still perfect; and of course I wanted attention.” She laughs. For her personal inspiration and innate style, she was dubbed mlungu. Next she walked the city streets, backing herself and her skills. She would gutsily approach beautiful strangers with makeover ideas. “Not just the skinny ones – women with fuller bodies too, who were just as beautiful.”
You don’t study what you want to. Like many of the courses at tech, Fashion Design actually costs much more than the fees – textiles, tools – it all adds up. At the time Yolanda was living with her mother, who was supporting the whole family. There aren’t always options to blindly follow that dream. Instead, Yolanda studied marketing, which helps you later when you merge your different talents.
You tell people what to do. Being an entrepreneurial image consultant has helped Yolanda develop a third eye for detail and a keen sense of proportion. She believes in bringing out the natural beauty of a person rather than adhereing to accepted aesthetic ideals. Her fans listen, and learn.
You try it from every angle. Design, that is. Accessorising means you can dress down; designing from scratch is about building up. She’s done both and believes her, “mom was an aesthetic icon – always simple, sophisticated and elegant.”
You mix work and play. The marketing tactics she picked up at tech have served her well in her performance and design work. In conjunction with her CODA colleague Carol, who handles the band’s PR, they brand the band to success. Yolanda is also mentoring a promising teen who she also happens to takes care of, with a flair for design. Past staff issues have shown her how to pick the right people to build the brand and the business with.
You let an incurable virus guide you. “HIV made me realise that I’m special.” She states solemny. So special that she is creating her business as a legacy for her boys. She’s a motivational public speaker on the subject of HIV/AIDs and an inspiration to anyone, anywhere who ever felt that their inner and outer world was against them.
Kloof street, prepare yourself for Yawa Creations