By By Toffy Dube
February 2011
Women in Business
BORN and bred in Rundu, Maria Caley came to Windhoek for her university studies where she struck a fashion bond with fellow arts degree students Chakirra Claasen and Patricia Mtambalika at Unam, a bond that has become the source of the trio’s daily bread.

Inspired by their university fashion lecturer, Melanie Hartveld Becker, Caley and friends soon joined Becker’s Pambili Association that sought, with the funding of the Finnish Embassy, to help young Namibian designers.

In 2008, Becker left for Australia and the funding from the Finnish Embassy was stopped.

Their story is a classic example of pure determination and perseverance where three young women enter into unknown territory to pursue their dreams collectively.

When Becker left, the trio had to choose either to close doors and walk away or to keep their faith and work together.

They opted for the latter.

“The need to work in designing became an inspiration for us and we stood our ground by motivating each other,” says Maria Caley.

They had watched Becker become a fashion idol in Namibia’s fashion and design industry and had witnessed models strut their stuff on the catwalk clad in her Namibian designs.

Becker had contributed pieces to the Nokia Face of Africa finals, Cape Town Fashion Show and the Finnish Pop Fashion, among many others. She had also contested alongside talented world renowned African designers like Nigerian Deola Sagoe and Koketso Chiepe of Botswana.

She had designed top of the range clothes for Joan Guriras, wife to former Prime Minister Theo Ben Gurirab, Fisheries Minister Abraham Iyambo, national supermodels among them former Miss Namibias, Michelle McLean, Nianell, Adele Basson, Leefa Shikwa, Maria Hiwelepo and Mia de Klerk.

The first person to draft the University of Namibia (Unam) fashion curriculum a decade ago, Becker was satisfied by the fact that the fashion design industry in Namibia was growing from strength to strength.

“When I entered the fashion business in Namibia 15 years ago, there were only two qualified designers, but today there are 12 more professional designers, some of whom have found greener pastures in Europe and I have hope for the upcoming, some of whom are under my wings,” Becker, once voted Namibia’s Millennium Designer in 2000 said in 2006

Today, Pambili Association has not died but has become an organisation in its own right speared-headed by a group of young women designers, once under Becker’s wings, designers with a desire to advance the fashion designing field in Namibia.

Their efforts have given birth to another company Pambili Young Designers which the trio uses to forge a strong basis in team work, uniting young designers to share their efforts and thoughts while working through these complex processes on the road to self sustainability.

Caley, Claasen and Mtambalika have continued with the Becker legacy of Pambili presenting a platform to enable young Namibian designers to secure income through product design, manufacture and sales. The association has been operating since 2009 and is totally self sustainable without any financial support.

“We did not inherit anything from our mentor but the name and experience. We have worked hard to be this far. We could have closed and left everything to go with the spirit of Melanie (Becker),” they say.

Besides their own will, the trio had enough expertise to hold the fort and make fashion designing their source of living.

Chakirra Claasen (31) obtained her BA Arts degree from Unam in 2004 majoring in Fashion and Art for Advertising.

“My aim is to uplift and help develop design industry in Namibia, but not all designers or creators are willing to participate,” she says.

Patricia Mtambalika brought in her taste for colour and shape into the organisation. A Unam graduate, Mtambalika has something in particular with regards to African pattern. A mother of four and the eldest in the group, she mostly prefers natural fibres that are suitable to the humid and warm climate of Africa.

Some of the typical fabric prints she favours are shwe-shwe, java prints, wax prints and the traditional Namibian ondelela print. Her cuts are modern and contemporary, which appeal to a wide fashion audience.

Caley (28), meanwhile is an assistant lecturer at Unam and is inspired by anything and everything around her.

“I have to be selective on what to work with, but I love playing around with colors,” she says.

Her designs are mostly Namibian culture material inspired so much that there are totally new to the fashion market.

“I look at crafts and artefacts with which I play around with to come up with motives for my prints,” she adds.

Caley’s designs are fabulous as they possess a cultural teaser. The trio has successfully exhibited their designs in fashion shows in Angola and German recently.

But these designers had and still have their fair share of challenges in the industry.

“After we started this project, we had to become business people and think business wise because we had to pay rent and sustain our-selves. None of us had any knowledge of handling business finance. We all had the same skills and passion.

We had a business to run but none of us would think about how to charge our clients. We soon realised that that was our main weakness. All we wanted to do was just to create exciting designs,” says Caley.

They regard it as frustrating when clients bring work they have seen either in newspapers, on television or elsewhere and want the trio to reproduce the same design.

“This limits our creativity because as designers work the other way round.

It compromises the originality of creative designing when you have to imitate someone’s work. Naturally, clients should give us their idea, and then we create a design after consulting them and brain storming through the client’s feelings, style, likes and the occasion which the garment will be used for. We will also look at the practicality of the garment and advise them accordingly,” adds Caley.

Claasen is particularly worried by the lack of fashion education in corporate Namibia.
“Some clients send us emails and others fax or call to place their orders. But how can we explain colour, textures, feelings and interpret mood to a client through an email or fax?”

She says some clients are clueless on what they want to be designed especially the matriculating girls. But this at least is a good sign because “we take time with them to consult and advise them on what would really suit the occasion and mostly the results are astonishing”.

For Mtambalika, “the Namibian fashion market is too small and designers are forced to compete with well established stores such as Edgars and Foschini Stores who offer products on credit, yet people need to know that we offer exclusive quality products”.

She adds, “Our associations do not have the funds to undertake aggressive marketing to counter our competitors as we are relatively small. However, we depend on referrals. From time to time we enjoy free publicity and also do marketing campaigns during trade fairs and fashion shows.

“Lack of raw materials is a major obstacle and the available raw material is very expensive making our products unaffordable to the average people.”

The trio calls for investment and development of factories in Namibia to allow designers to mass produce their designs so that the cost of production will be reduced as well as the price of their garments.

But one of the reasons why little ground has been gained in Namibia is that there are a lot of people who pose as designers when in actual fact they don’t have designing knowledge or experience.

For them, such people are creating a bad image on the trained designers through their sub-standard work.

Due to this lack of trust from the public as a result of these bogus designers, the trio calls for the establishment of an umbrella body that regulates and acts as a watchdog for designers.

Situated at the Craft Centre, old brewery building in Windhoek, Pambili Young Designers welcomes all aspiring designers to come keep their dream alive.

“Aspiring designers must keep on dreaming, hold on to your dreams and persevere through all. One day you will have a breakthrough and remember to give it your best and associate yourself with professionals in the designing industry and be willing to work and learn from them. That is how you can grow, that is the message for young women like myself,” Caley says.

Mtambalika strongly feels that Namibia has the capability to produce designers of high quality and unique to the international market.

She believes if Namibians change their mentality and believe that the country can produce competitive products on the world market with the support of local people on local designers, the industry can grow tremendously. PF