Behind the scenes

Fashion designer Thabo Kopele gave audiences a glimpse into studio life at Decorex Joburg 2023.

Hailing from a small town in the Vaal Triangle, an area south of Johannesburg, Thabo Kopele is a young up-and-coming fashion designer who expresses his love of contemporary minimalism through his eponymous label. 

In 2020, Kopele was selected as a finalist in the Scouting Menswear Competition at South African Fashion Week, and the following year he was chosen as one of the Top 8 designers to represent Africa at a WGSN mentorship.

Most recently, the young designer was selected to participate in Decorex Joburg 2023, Africa’s leading decor and design exhibition, as a Rising Talent of 2023, where he displayed ‘The Deconstructed Studio’. His unexpected display took showgoers behind the design scenes, showcasing ‘the ever-so-vulnerable parts of the process of ideating and making the products’.

We chatted to Kopele about his exhibition, working alongside his idols and what’s up next for him in 2023. 

Tell us about ‘The Deconstructed Studio’.

‘The Deconstructed Studio’ offered an open-door invitation into who Thabo Kopele is as a designer and, most importantly, as a brand.

The carefully placed items that were featured on my stand created a visual cycle, from pattern making, sample ideation, fabric manipulation and texturing, to the formation of a silhouette in the form of a white sample coat made from pleated chiffon, suede and reinforced poly-blended fabrics. This is then matured into a more practical and functional everyday garment, which is made in hemp-based fabrics and is then made available for purchase. 

The chessboard and chairs were simply by-products of the process that informs the direction in which I go when ideating a collection or even a singular design.

All these things form part of what a client would witness if they were to visit my studio in the midst of a collection being made.

Bringing this to Decorex was something I was nervous about but I believe that it is important to introduce the brand to clients in the most honest way possible. 

This was also your first foray into furniture design. What similarities and differences did you find between furniture and fashion design? 

The freedom of creation was the first similarity I was met with when I started thinking about what I would like to do in furniture, not just this year but going forward. The possibilities are just as endless as they are with fashion; in fact, I think furniture offered me a wider scope of what I could start exploring.

Part of what I wanted to showcase was a rock called ‘Leseho’, which is found predominantly in the capital of Lesotho, Maseru, but, unfortunately, my studio was broken into shortly before Decorex opened its doors for the public to witness what we had all been working on. As gut-wrenching as it was to not be able to show the world that special feature in my exhibition, I was still elated with how the concept of bringing my creative train of thought was received by people. 

What did it mean to you to be chosen as the 2023 Rising Talent?

It was a dream come true. The organisers entrusted me with such a huge responsibility, to help inspire other young people who come from all walks of life to believe that they too could be chosen for this opportunity if they keep working towards achieving their dreams.

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it all – the people I met at the expo, the people who were drawn to the brand Thabo Kopele, and a whole fleet of young and keen minds that were absorbing information from me and others like sponges, was just awe-inspiring to be a part of. 

You were also part of a panel that spoke about the future of design in South Africa and where we're headed in design as a continent. Tell us about your contribution.

That was another dream come true. I had looked up to the (other) people on my panel for a very long time, and for me to be on stage with them, discussing some of the most important difficulties and their solutions, was something I look back at with pure glee. 

The topics we discussed affect us all, from the consumers of art and fashion to the makers thereof. We are all affected by these looming topics of identity, culture, managing different forms and vessels of communication and storytelling. It was very insightful for me as a host of the panel discussion – and for the crowd, judging by the way they engaged with each topic of discussion.

The turnout was also a pleasant surprise, as so many people had told me that they came to Decorex simply to hear the talk, which was a hugely gratifying thing to hear.

What’s up next for the Thabo Kopele brand? 

The next project is to host a solo runway show, either later this year or very early next year.

There is also a rising desire to produce more fashion films, as the last one [‘Lifestyle Studios’ Fashion Film] was selected for viewing at film festivals in three different cities around the world. It was a great achievement for the project and everyone who was involved, so it would be wonderful for us to be afforded more such opportunities.

The Thabo Kopele brand has also grown to a point of needing a team behind it. I have been able to do so much with it alone, but a team is very much needed for the brand to grow going forward.


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Photographs: Thabo Kopele, Design Joburg, Lwazi Manzi.