It’s a dark and crisp autumn morning on Albertina Sisulu Street in central Johannesburg. Chiman Chhiba opens the tangle of locks and chains that secure his tailor shop. He lifts shutters of rolled metal to reveal windows displaying rabbit-fur hats decorated with multi-colored feathers and designer shoes. The awakening city roars past him in a cacophony of speeding vehicles and police sirens.
Chhiba is a small but feisty man of 76. How else could he have thrived on these streets that seem to grow meaner by the minute?
He describes how a gang of robbers recently descended on his store. “Actually, they came with a firearm. And we were about six of us here. And they just cocked the gun and they said it’s a holdup… We were fortunate; we can only thank the almighty,” says a po-faced Chhiba.
Johannesburg rises from the dust
Inside the cramped and dingy tailor shop, there’s a fresh fabric smell of new clothing. Hundreds of pants and jackets hang from walls.
Chhiba points to a crumpled, faded, black-and-white photograph on his desk. In it, an elderly man swathed in a patchwork robe smiles benignly. It’s his father, Ramjee, who opened ‘R. Chhiba Tailors of Distinction’ in 1914 … Thirteen years after arriving from India in a Johannesburg booming because of gold mining.
“We were (eventually) a family of 10 – six sisters, four brothers, and one breadwinner. Things was tough; no doubt. It was a very hard time. And we survived… But looking back, I do not know how,” Chhiba recalls.
The family stayed in a tiny apartment near their patriarch’s shop.
Chhiba keeps one eye on a cricket game on TV, while remembering how the skyscrapers of the inner city rose around him and his siblings in the 1940s.
“I remember while they were digging the holes we used to jump in and play. All these buildings came out while we were here.”
The death of tailoring
Chhiba began working for his father as a tailor when he was just 14 … Sixty-two years ago.
“Ever since then I’m still here, still alive and kicking! I enjoy my work. Not a day we have stayed away! We were four brothers; we were working together, all in one business!” he says incredulously.
Two of his brothers died a few years ago. “Now we’re short of manpower,” Chhiba says softly.
He adds that the modern world no longer has a place for the “art” of tailoring. “It’s completely dead; before you could find a tailor practically on every block, now it’s difficult to find a tailor. There’s hardly any tailors left.”
Chhiba leads the way through a storeroom. It’s overflowing with thousands of pants and shirts. Boxes of shoes are heaped to the roof.
To make a living, Chhiba now has to sell ready-made clothes, imported from around the world.
Now, he says, stores no longer cater to individual customers. A walk down the street shows franchise shops all selling the same branded clothing.
Chhiba sighs, “Clothes used to be a celebration of individuality. Now everyone wants to look the same.”
The chipped antique Singer
But, every so often, the tailor fires up his old, chipped, black Singer sewing machine and does a few alterations for clients. Chhiba smiles broadly as the antique device clicks and whirrs.
It reminds him of a life lost in the haze of time, when he made bespoke suits from material imported from England. “I was actually a machinist, sewing trousers and the jackets – men’s clothing only; no shirts, only jackets, trousers, waistcoats… Ninety-nine percent of our clients was coloreds and Africans.”
Chhiba always loved making clothes, even though it was tough work.
“We used to get so many trousers a day that we had to finish. So we were on the machine all the time; we had no time to loaf or anything, and we had no such thing as a lunch break.”
Shop is doomed
Chhiba acknowledges that soon he’ll have to retire … And Chhiba Tailors will shut for good.
He says his and his brother’s children are all information technology specialists, medical doctors, lawyers - with no interest whatsoever in their fathers’ business.
“Actually, I’m very glad about that,” says Chhiba. “I’m proud that we worked hard to educate them so that they do not have to work as we did.”
Yet the tailor acknowledges he’s “tired and a bit sad” … Resigned to his store being absorbed into modernity. He smiles weakly and says it’ll probably become a “fancier” place, selling “fancy stuff that all looks the same.”
Or worse – a fast food joint.
And so another grain of Johannesburg’s rich history will be gone, forever.