News / Africa

    Clothing Designer’s ‘Incredible Journey’ with Nelson Mandela

    Seamstress Desre Buirski explains the human rights icon’s great love of silk, hand-painted ‘Madiba shirts’

    FILE - Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves to the media as he arrives outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, 28 August 2007. FILE - Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves to the media as he arrives outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, 28 August 2007.
    x
    FILE - Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves to the media as he arrives outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, 28 August 2007.
    FILE - Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves to the media as he arrives outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, 28 August 2007.
    Darren Taylor

    One evening in early May 1994, Desre Buirski received the “tip off” that altered the course of her life.  She heard that the world’s most famous freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, would be visiting a synagogue near her home in Cape Town the next morning.

    He’s wearing his very first ‘Madiba shirt,’ given to him by Cape Town fashion designer Desre   Buirski

     

    Nelson Mandela waves to supporters shortly before being inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratic president … He’s wearing his very first ‘Madiba shirt,’ given to him by Cape Town fashion designer Desre Buirski
    Nelson Mandela waves to supporters shortly before being inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratic president … He’s wearing his very first ‘Madiba shirt,’ given to him by Cape Town fashion designer Desre Buirski


    The African National Congress (ANC) leader, who’d been imprisoned for 27 years by a white supremacist government for opposing apartheid, was in the city to be inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratic president.  Just a few weeks before, Mandela had emerged victorious from the country’s first multiracial polls.

    “Just like millions of people around the world, I had thought to myself that, ‘One day, I am going to see Nelson Mandela in the flesh – even if it is just from a distance.’  So when I heard the night before that he was paying a visit near where I lived, I thought, ‘Well, here’s my chance to turn my little dream into reality.’”

    At the time, she was a struggling fashion designer.  “I thought, ‘Okay, I need to definitely come up with some idea to give him as a gift.’”  So Buirski “dipped into” a cupboard and found a man’s shirt she’d previously made.

     

     

    Mandela wearing another one of Buirski’s famous silk shirts
    Mandela wearing another one of Buirski’s famous silk shirts

     

    “It had long sleeves.  It happened to be extra-large.  I knew that this would probably fit (Mandela) because he was very tall.  I grabbed it.  I thought, ‘Well, even if he doesn’t use it, he can give it away,’” she says.   

    It was a black shirt, with gold and cream fish patterns embroidered on it.  Buirski wrapped it up.  She wrote a note to Mandela on her business card and included it in the package.

    ‘They’ll think it’s a bomb….’

    The next morning, Buirski made her way down to the synagogue, dressed in a striking outfit of black, green and gold – the colors of the ANC.

    “When I arrived there, there were a whole lot of photographers outside.  I said to them, ‘Do you think I’d be able to get this package to President Mandela?’  They looked at me and said, ‘Come on!  (His bodyguards) are going to think there’s a bomb in there!’  So I sheepishly went inside clutching my precious cargo,” she says.

     

    Buirski got to meet Mandela on a number of occasions, and says she’s “honored” to have made clothing for him
    Buirski got to meet Mandela on a number of occasions, and says she’s “honored” to have made clothing for him

     

    Buirski watched “in awe” as Mandela gave a speech to the Jewish community.  Afterwards, when one of his minders passed near her, she says she “took a chance,” and “thrust” the gift at him, saying, “That’s for President Mandela; please give it him!”  

    “Amazingly,” she says, the bodyguard took the package.  But she had “little hope” of the shirt ever finding its way to Mandela.  Nevertheless, Buirski says that at the time she was “happy as a lark in the sky” at having been so close to her hero.  

    The dress rehearsal for Mandela’s inauguration took place a few days later.  The day after that, while she was at a gym, a friend called her and “excitedly” told her to read that morning’s newspaper.   

    “I went and got the newspaper, and there it was on the right-hand page – this huge photograph of (Mandela) wearing this beautiful shirt of mine!  It just looked so incredible on him, like it was just meant to be.  There he was, giving the world a huge big wave (in my shirt)!  Of course, it kind of hit me like a two-by-four (truck).  I couldn’t quite believe that this was real.  And so began my relationship – this incredible relationship, this incredible journey – that I’ve had with Nelson Mandela, as his shirt maker.”

     

    One of Buirski’s ‘Madiba shirt’ designs, showing the geometric patterns favored by Mandela
    One of Buirski’s ‘Madiba shirt’ designs, showing the geometric patterns favored by Mandela


    ‘Will you make silk shirts for me?’

    “Moved” and “inspired beyond words,” Buirski began making more shirts similar in style to the one she’d given the president as a present.  In the months that followed Mandela’s inauguration, she sent them regularly to his office, always receiving letters of gratitude him.  She became acquainted with Mandela’s personal assistant at the time, Mary Maxadana.  

    “In June 1995, I received a call out of the blue from Mary.  She said, ‘When we’re next in Cape Town, I’m going to organize for us to have breakfast with the president.  I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” Buirski exclaims, continuing, “Then Mary said, ‘How about tomorrow morning, nine o’ clock?’  I just couldn’t believe it.  That was just the most amazing moment – that I was actually going to meet the president and have a one-on-one with him!’”

    They met at Tuynhuys, Mandela’s Cape Town residence.  “I got the opportunity to meet this superhuman man,” Buirski says, recalling it as a “very surreal moment.  I remember standing outside his office, and he opened the door, and there he was standing.  He greeted me.  The next thing I remember is hugging him and holding him and I was in tears.”

    During their meeting, she told Mandela that she wanted to be “of some sort of assistance” to him.  She says he immediately replied, “‘Right!  How would you like to make silk shirts for me?’”

     

     

    Mandela addressing a meeting, wearing one of Buirski’s geometric patterned shirts
    Mandela addressing a meeting, wearing one of Buirski’s geometric patterned shirts

     

    Since then, Buirski estimates she’s made him more than 120 of them.

    “The ones that Mandela specifically wears are silk, hand-painted shirts, and they are…. brightly colored with geometric (patterns) and floral designs….  At first he told me he liked earth tones, but he’s probably got every single color in the rainbow as part of his collection of shirts that I’ve done for him.”   

    Buirski’s shirts became Mandela’s signature dress style and are known as ‘Madiba Shirts.’  ‘Madiba’ is the name of Mandela’s Xhosa clan and is used to indicate respect and affection for him.

    Mandela’s support for her creations partly enabled Buirski to establish a business with branches in most of South Africa’s big cities.  She exports shirts around the world.  She also made several shirts for Hollywood actor, Morgan Freeman, when he played Mandela in the international hit film, Invictus.

     

    One of Buirski’s models wearing a ‘Madiba shirt’
    One of Buirski’s models wearing a ‘Madiba shirt’


    Mandela ‘offends’ Giorgio Armani

    Buirski says in a number of meetings with Mandela down the years, he gave her “a few” reasons for liking her shirts so much.  “The first being that he’d been in such drab prison garb for so long (and) these soft, shiny, loose fitting silk shirts, with their bright colors, are about as far away from prison clothing as one can get,” she explains.   

    Buirski’s convinced that by wearing her shirts, Mandela was, in effect, “declaring himself a free man.  I think the silk shirts and the shirts in general gave him a sense of freedom, a sense of expression….  (And) for him to come out of jail and wear boring, stiff suits just didn’t do it for him.”  

    She recalls Mandela, during his presidency, telling her about a phone call he’d received from world famous Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani “who was quite upset with him that he hadn’t been using this suit that he’d sent him.”

    Buirski laughs, “Armani apparently asked him why he’d chosen to wear these ‘wild shirts’ as his suit.  That was definitely a feather in my cap when he told me that.”   
    She maintains that her shirts are “very much” a reflection of Mandela’s “alternative” individuality.  “He was into change, moving forward, doing things differently.  He was a very strong individual, very much his own man.  I don’t think he wanted to look like every other world leader, dressed in a grey or black suit.  He wanted to look and feel like Nelson Mandela, and these shirts allowed him to do that.”

     

     

    Buirski’s closeness to Mandela has made her somewhat of a celebrity in her own right … In this photo, she graces the cover of a South African magazine
    Buirski’s closeness to Mandela has made her somewhat of a celebrity in her own right … In this photo, she graces the cover of a South African magazine

     

    Mandela’s ‘massive footprint’

    Buirski says while Mandela was “definitely a man of the people,” he also wanted to be a “man apart.  Instead of standing up on international podiums with all the other leaders in their suits and ties, telling us all how the world should be run, he stood apart from all of them, in his colorful shirts, and gave the world a different message: that of peace and reconciliation – no matter what the cost,” she says.

    The renowned shirt maker will remember Mandela as an “incredible human being” who “shared humility, kindness, vision and an ability to forgive” with billions of people.

    “He rubbed off on many of us.  He’s the main reason why South Africa continues to survive, despite all our problems – because when things start to go wrong, we think of what Mandela would have done,” Buirski says.  “He’s just left this massive footprint on the world.”

    Nelson Mandela will be revered for his extraordinary qualities as a human being…and Desre Buirski will go down in South African history as the woman who created his famously distinctive, eccentric shirts.  

    She says, “I’m so incredibly honored to have been just a miniscule part of this great man’s life.”        
     

    Listen to Desre Buirski, designer of "Madiba" shirts
    Listen to Desre Buirski, designer of "Madiba" shirtsi
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

     

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.