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Zim fashion designer set the world runway on fire

ISHMAEL Tsakatsa is immersed in his work, adding finishing touches to a garment on a mannequin in his studio located off Sam Nujoma, one of Harare’s most vibrant streets.

He adds small incisions, before taking a quick glance to ensure everything is flawless. Select finished garments are on display on one side of the room. Each one is elegant and chic, emblematic of his Zarge’sia fashion label.

It’s a few months after his ground-breaking debut at Paris Fashion week’s 2021 Spring/Summer collection, the first Zimbabwean fashion designer to showcase their work at the world’s premier fashion exhibition. The opportunity to show his Stones of Fire collection on one of the most sought-after global stages came after his designs caught the eye of an international agent.

“I got scouted by an international fashion agency and they submitted my portfolio. The next thing, I was invited for Paris Fashion Week and I am the first Zimbabwean to participate on such a prestigious global platform,” he said.

For Tsakatsa, the event was a profound coming-of-age experience. It was also a few years in the making.

“I developed a love for fashion way back in primary school during our home economics lessons and as I was growing up, I was just doing it as a hobby, so, after I finished my A-levels that’s when I decided, ‘let me take it to the next level,” he said.

The next level comprised a few detours that included completing a five-year degree in physiotherapy at the University of Zimbabwe from 2011 to 2015 and then working as a physiotherapist with fashion relegated to a side business.

But while he enjoyed physiotherapy and excelled at it, the fashion bug kept calling.

“I was an intelligent student so you know parents always have expectations, they want you to become a medical doctor, they want you to do something challenging so I took up physiotherapy after my A-levels. I liked it,” he said, chuckling.

On the fashion front, Tsakatsa signed on for different fashion exhibitions to gain exposure in the field and improve his craft.

“I started with an exhibition at the Midlands Agricultural show in 2012 and I received the Home Industry award in fashion design and tailoring. From there, I took part in a young designer’s competition which I didn’t win but I went on to showcase at the Zimbabwe Fashion Week that year and in 2014, I was awarded Zimbabwean Designer of the year. From that time, it has been one level to another…In 2015, I was awarded the Future Africa leaders award in Nigeria.”

Receiving accolades along the way and gaining recognition from peers gave Tsakatsa the confidence he needed to pursue fashion seriously and dedicate his energy towards the craft.

In the last three years, his designs and styling portfolio has grown to include dressing Zimbabwean entrepreneurs Zodwa Mkandla, Pokello Nare, and Ugandan socialite and entrepreneur, Zari Hassan.

He named his fashion brand Zarge’sia in reference to his personal belief system and the endless possibilities when you align with a higher power.

“Zargue’sia means the beauty of the God kind. It’s a term that describes how unique the designs are and how different they are from what people are normally used to,” he explained.

Tsakatsa’s distinct pieces are designed for functions, red carpet events, ready to wear collections, as well as weddings.

“Fashion is an art, how we express our thoughts using garments as a canvas to paint our story.” The garments “speak royalty, opulence, and elegance with a touch of drama and sophistication.” he said.

Tsakatsa does not work alone. It takes a team of eight to bring the sophisticated designs to life.

“I work with a team. I have an assistant designer, people who do the embellishments, the beadwork, I have seamstresses, I also have patternmakers as well…It all starts with an idea and from there I translate the idea onto paper. After sketching comes the issue of fabric selection, what sort of fabric works best with the design, and what sort of details will be added, and from there, we go to the pattern making process where we translate the sketch into the real-life garment we envisioned. After the pattern making and the cutting of the fabric, comes the stitching, that’s where our seamstresses come into play, pressing the seams-the technical aspect of it. After that, if there are going to be embellishments, we start to make decisions [on] the beadwork, that’s where our artisans come into play,” he explained.

Although he has mastered the art of his craft and brand, Tsakatsa has faced some challenges along the way and shares some of those lessons to equip upcoming designers on their journey.

“The challenges that I faced include getting other people to believe in my vision. At first, my parents were a bit sceptical, especially my dad. They were like, ‘you cannot just focus on one thing’. The other challenge is trying to fund everything from your own pocket. It was tough because to take part in some of the showcases and exhibitions you have to pay, so I had to get that money from my personal savings,” he says.

“Another challenge I faced was, there are not many high fashion designers in Zimbabwe, so it’s quite difficult for you to look for someone you can learn from. I had to actually teach myself some things. Here in Zimbabwe, I was inspired by Joyce Chimanye, the way she works with African print.”

To counter some of these challenges, Tsakatsa had to devise ways to make his business sustainable, beginning with a mindset shift.

“You have to take it seriously as a business, stop taking it as a hobby because at the end of the day you have to make money to cater to bread and butter issues. The moment you start looking at it as a business, you can move forward,” he added.

“The other thing you need to identify is your target market, how you can tap into that market, how you can bring your product to that market and how they can accept the product you are offering. How can you distinguish yourself from the other brands? That will definitely set you apart and make you stand out and bring you good business.”

Adopting this approach and increasing his dedication to his fashion business earned Tsakatsa recognition, including being scouted for the Paris Fashion Week. That was one of the greatest career highlights in 2021, coming in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and its many threats to fashion businesses. It also broke down his sense of isolation, offering him a wider perspective and potential role in, the African Fashion industry.

“African fashion is fast growing and is penetrating all these markets in Europe and Asia. The experience was awesome, other African designers were showcasing from Nigeria and South Africa. Getting to see other established designers and learning about their journey, how they started off and just sharing a platform with those designers was such a humbling experience for me,” he advises.

Tsakatsa’s goal following his Paris Fashion Week experience is to conquer global markets, without losing sight of his continent and home that birthed him.

“It was a learning curve, to actually see how I can take my brand to the next level using such a global platform and seeing it as an opportunity to push African fashion forward and just change the fashion narrative for Africa and Zimbabwe.”

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/bird story agency


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