Vuyelwa Mabena, the Zimbabwean who dressed Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana
Yvonne Ncube, Chronic Correspondent
VUYELWA Mabena first demonstrated her exceptional sewing skills at the age of ten, when she volunteered to help her mother with her business in downtown Bulawayo.
She viewed her mother’s bespoke items as nothing more than a work of art and wanted to be like her.
Today, the passion and drive to put pieces of fabric together to create an amazing finished product has given Mabena the chance to sew for royal families in the UK and other parts of Europe.
The 53-year-old is now racking up accolades for the skills she found and developed as a child.
“I started drawing at the age of 10, my mother had a shop downtown. I used to help my mum in her shop, I was a really good design person because it was something I learned from my mum rather than at school. When I was at St Columbu High School, my headmistress always encouraged me to take a course teaching fashion and fabrics but sadly that never happened.
“In 1992 I left the country for the UK, when I got there I tried to go to university or college but it was so difficult because I was a I was a foreign student and the fees were higher. Luckily I got a job with a fashion designer who gave me in-house training. I worked for her for 13 years. During those 13 years, I “I’ve been lucky enough to work for other millinery designers. I’ve worked for Philip Somerville, Frederick Fox and Della Hats,” Mabena said.
Milliner designers had royal warrants, which meant they could design for the royal family.
“These designers got a royal warrant. A royal warrant is a warrant that allows designers to design for the royal family or any other product 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 the qualifications to work as a milliner, but I was trained internally, I was very lucky because it’s something you can’t learn at university. J I then left design and went into nursing but I never finished being a nurse. I just took time for everything. During that time I had a baby, so I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said.
Mabena then worked for a company that had a royal warrant to design for royal families in Europe.
“In 2000 I returned to design to work for a company called London Patey limited, this company also had a royal warrant; they made hats for the Navy, Air Force and Royal Regiment throughout the UK.
The company also had a mandate for royal families in Europe and they designed for Denmark and Spain. Having the opportunity to work for such an organization was very important to me.
“In 2010 I went to university and enrolled in art and design and studied for three years, two years later I went to London University of Art where I graduated As a University student I was employed by the University to work in summer schools and when I graduated in 2015 I was offered a job as a specialist technician, so I have been doing this job so far,” Mabena said.
She said she annually covers tennis players who compete at the Wimbledon Championships, ranked as the oldest tennis tournament in the world and widely regarded as the most prestigious.
“However, I’m independent at the same time, and I have my brand, so that’s been my design journey. I’ve worked for Ralph for three years and that continues every year when they have their Wimbledon Championships in July every year.
“The experience is exciting but there is so much work, we work so hard. We only work seven days. When we work, we work from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. the next day. The work has to be up to par, it’s a stimulating 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 said.
Mabena has also worked with globally recognized companies like Dior and Nylander Couture.
“I managed to do projects for Dior, I worked for Nylander Haute Couture where I had the opportunity to work for many fashion houses.
I had the experience of making clothes for footballers and artists. I worked for a company that supplied luxury stores like Harrods, John Lewis and Liberty. At the same time, I do all this work, I push my brand called VM Vuyelwa Mabena.
“The biggest challenge I’ve had to face is employing staff. Most of the people I work with are university graduates and paying them is a challenge as their salaries are very high. Most of the time, the workload is too heavy for one person. And the other thing is that my designs are limited editions. I don’t like my designs to be everywhere, so people always ask me how I make money. I provide a service rather than a product,” Mabena said.
Mabena said she was a proud product of Bulawayo.
“I was born in Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo and grew up in Mzilikazi. I did my primary school in Lozikeyi.
I went to Inyathi High School for my secondary. I also went to St Columba for the advanced level. I went to Polytechnic in Bulawayo where I studied business studies. When I was growing up in the 70s, my dad was a music producer, so I grew up in a house full of music.
“I love listening to music and have developed a love for designing and customizing for musicians. I design for artists here in the UK and Zimbabwe. I have had the privilege of designing for Songs of Lozikeyi, for Nkwali, for Thandy Dlana and for Amaqaqa. I am a millinery designer, in womenswear, menswear and custom design. I would like to one day 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 put on a show here in London to celebrate 100 years since Queen Lozikeyi passed away. I asked Nkwali if she could compose a song for the podium, she composed Halala Lozikeyi which was a hit, even the president loved the song. It was performed at State House in Harare and at Dubai Expo 2020 this year.
Mabena said her greatest achievement is preparing future designers.
“My greatest achievement is to see students leave university every year and become the greatest designers in the world. In the university where I work, we have students from all over the world and from different nationalities. I have the best times learning a lot of different things and getting inspired by everything. I would love to see things made in Zimbabwe and marketed worldwide,” Mabena said.–@SeehYvonne