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

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fairi
X
Brian Padden
May 29, 2015 1:27 PM
With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs