Self-taught dressmaker Keneilwe Ntaolang is using fashion to celebrate her heritage…
South Africans are celebrating Heritage Day on Monday, which means we can expect to see scores of people embracing their culture through fashion.
Many are expected to proudly wear traditional attire on the public holiday – a day that celebrates our country’s unique culture and diversity.
But budding entrepreneur Keneilwe Ntaolang believes people should be able to celebrate their heritage every day and not just on special occasions like Heritage Day.
The self-taught dressmaker from Pretoria turned a “passion project” into a business that shows off her pride in her culture.
The 31-year-old designs and creates outfits with African prints that women can wear daily – not just on Heritage Day.
When it comes to fashion, Keneilwe is very specific about what she wants. If she can’t find an outfit she saw in a magazine in a store she gets a dressmaker to make it for her.
So, you can imagine her frustration when one of her trusted dressmakers moved away from her city.
The setback was the start of a new business venture called House of Kenells.
“I couldn’t find anyone to replace him [her dressmaker]. That is when I decided to learn how to make clothes for myself. Once people started seeing me in a few items that I made, they would ask me to also make them something. And that’s how the business came to life. The biggest part of the business was to also highlight my Africanness. I love working with African prints,” she says.
Keneilwe hopes to see South Africans dressing in traditional wear a lot more often.
“I have realised that people still have the perception that you only wear African prints when you go to weddings or certain ceremonies. However, I want to change that. We cannot wait for Americans or Europeans to make our Africanness fashionable and trendy. We need to incorporate it into our everyday lives. People shouldn’t be surprised by me wearing an African print during the week at work. It should be the norm.”
Learning to make clothing was challenging at first, but she says she did not give up.
“I believe it was my mind that was challenged. I did not believe I was capable. And the comments that I received from the people close to me, started to create doubts in my head. But all of that changed when I started believing in my potential. I know I still have a long way to go, but the first step was to start. I took a short course that taught me the basics. After buying myself a sewing machine, I practised every day and I haven’t stopped since then. To this day, my hands itch if I don’t at least research different fabrics or patterns.”
Keneilwe currently works as a Digital Marketing Specialist at one of the biggest insurance companies in South Africa, which means she must juggle her dressmaking business with a full-time job.
“It is challenging to have to come back from work and start working on all the orders I receive. But I am driven by passion, and I really do not mind. This has become a way for me to shed down the weight of a day job and channel my energy into something else. This a form of therapy for me. And making money out of it is a bonus,” she says.
Her skills as a digital marketer are also helping to grow her business.
“I see myself growing into an online portal, where people can order, and we deliver to them, as a Digital Specialist I really believe that online shopping is here to stay and that is where I see my business growing into. I would also love to have a team that I can work with in the future. People who have been in the industry longer, who can help me grow even further.”
The response to her clothing has been overwhelming and orders are pouring in, not only from friends and family but from clients who have spotted her clothing on social media.
“People love the pieces I make for them. The first client I delivered to gave me courage. The look on her face after her fitting was incredible. The joy that her smile gave me fuelled the hunger to do even more. It showed me that I really have the potential to run with this.”
Growing up in Ga-Rankuwa, Keneilwe was a shy girl with very little confidence. But fashion turned a quiet girl into someone not afraid to dream big, and she hopes to help women do the same.
“Clothes made me happy. As a teenager, I struggled to find my identity. When I could finally start accepting myself and exploring more of who I really am, fashion played a massive role in that. I have never been good at expressing myself verbally, but my clothes helped me to do that. When I felt bold and confident I would wear bright colours with cuts that were out there in your face. and when I was shy and conservative, I would tone down on everything. Fashion became a part of me.”