I’m kind of fascinated by the fashion choices world leaders make. JFK might’ve been the iciest in recent history, but there’s definitely a range. Some go formal, some cultural-traditional, and some just stick to the military gear. Either way, you’ve got to give it to Nelson Mandela for keeping it fresh and original with the patterned button-ups. I know Tom feels me. Nicknamed “Madiba shirts”, the world-famous pieces are the creative output of South African designer Desre’ Nash, and the focus of her recent conversation with Vice Style. We’ll save his story and legacy for a time where we’re feeling more substantive, but for the time being, this one’s pretty dope in its own right.
Illustration by Minky Stapleton
A conversation with Desre’ Nash, from Vice Style:
So tell me about the first shirt that you gave to Nelson Mandela.
Okay, so basically it was two days before his inauguration and he was coming to make a couple of public appearances in Cape Town. That day he was coming to meet the Jewish community and the day before he’d been to speak to the Muslim community in a place called Bo-Kaap, which I think just goes to show how involved he was with every demographic of the country. He was talking about how the Jewish families in South Africa had been split apart by Apartheid over the past ten years and was making a plea to ask our families to return to South Africa and bring with them the skills and knowledge they had learned from overseas, which touched me because I had just returned from America a few months before that.
How did you get that first shirt to him? Surely you couldn’t just walk up and give him something, right?
No. Well, I’d always been so into the whole Nelson Mandela new South Africa thing and it was a dream of mine to have an opportunity to meet him. I heard he was making this appearance just down the street from where I was living and I was like “I have to take him a gift”, but there’s not much you can buy at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, you know? Then I thought, ‘hang on, I’ve got a shirt from my old shop in America with the tag still on it that just happens to be an extra large’. So yeah, that’s the shirt I gave him that became the very famous fish shirt.
That’s the one that sparked the Madiba shirt craze?
Yeah. Well, that shirt became his signature trademark, so I think there has been a kind of trend, if you will. While Mandela was in power even his government began to wear the shirts, but think the current government went back to the bloody suit and tie story.
So how did you actually get that first shirt to him?
Well, at the end of his speech in the synagogue the street was jam-packed with like 10,000 people – a lot of grannies because it’s quite an elderly area – all trying to get a glimpse of the man. I went up to his car and knocked on the driver’s window, which he rolled down immediately, unlike in America where you’d be pulled away and probably arrested, you know? Then the driver just pointed at the bodyguard and said “go tell him, he’ll help you” and sure enough the driver was like “No problem” so I gave him a huge hug to pass on to Nelson Mandela. After that I left and I was on such a high, like I was on cloud 50,000, you know?
What was the next step after that?
Well, that was me making my debut, yes. Then, the day after the inauguration my friend called me saying “have you seen the newspaper?” but wouldn’t tell me anything. I bought a paper and, to my absolute amazement, there he was on the cover wearing the fish shirt I had given him. I began to send him shirts through Mary, his PA.
Wow. So when did you first start making the shirts specifically for him?
It must have been about a year after the fish shirt. I got a call out of the blue from Mary saying that the next time they were in Cape Town they were going to arrange a meeting for me and I was just amazed. It was like my staple diet, praying and dreaming about meeting Nelson Mandela. Seriously. I think a lot of people thought I had lost the plot.
Well, when he entered the room I literally dived into his arms and started hugging him. At this point I was quite tearful and he goes “it’s such an honor to meet you” and you wanna just correct him, you know? Be like “No, it’s my honor!” That’s how humble this man is. I then said that I wanted to offer my services to him but that I wasn’t looking for pay because I already had my business manufacturing men’s shirts. He then asked me, “Well, would you like to make some shirts for me?” and I was like “Oh my God, of course!” Then a month later I delivered the first silk shirt to him for his 79th birthday.
It was his birthday the other day, right?
Yeah, 93, which just shows you how long I’ve been involved in this thing now, which is kind of scary. But yeah, then over the next four years I was invited to all of the presidential banquets that occurred.
Has he ever asked for a certain print or anything like that?
No, but what he did do, in 1996 on his state visit to Britain, is have Mary call me because he needed four black shirts to wear while he was there. That trip, the Queen actually invited him to stay at Buckingham Palace, which doesn’t usually happen. I don’t know where she usually puts people but it ain’t at Buckingham Palace. Also, he was one of the only visitors to not wear a suit while he was with the Queen. Actually, when I was at his home once he told me that after that trip Giorgio Armani had called him and was very upset that Mandela wasn’t wearing the suits he had given him!
Ha, so basically you beat Armani to dress the best guy in the world.
Well, yeah. He favored the shirts over the suit on this occasion. I think that the shirts kind of represented that new South Africa idea as well, you know? They were so informal and most of the early shirts were quite loud so it made him stand out amongst all the other world leaders in their suits. The only time he wore a suit, I think, was to a UN meeting, but other than that – even with all the other huge G8 style meetings – he was always in a shirt.