02.03.2016

Denim Palace

Nwabisa Ntlokwana is part of the exciting new movement at 8 Morrison Street

Words and Photographs: Samora Chapman

Nwabisa Ntlokwana’s got that Mona Lisa smile. She keeps something hidden, dancing just behind her eyes, a look that’s captured the love and likes of a couple thousand followers on her Instagram – Denim Palace. There’s nothing quite as classic and familiar as a faded pair of blue jeans or an old denim jacket, and it’s the type of get-up that you’d inherit from your old man and wear ‘til the day you die that's Denim Palace's specialty. The Durban brand is an ode to these indomitable denim icons.

Nwabisa's pictures online are sultry, intimate and tasteful, leading me to wonder, "Who is she?". When I arrive at 8 Morrison Street, Sneaker Exchange is in full tilt and I need to do a photoshoot and an interview with the 28-year-old founder of Denim Palace. I eventually track down my Mona Lisa in the VIP area who is friendly yet aloof, and as time slips away we gather the Denim Palace crew and head down to the lower Point area – a ghost town with a lot of life left in it, crumbling but beautiful.

We’ve got no time to get acquainted before I’m staring at Nwabisa down the length of my camera lens as we race against the fading light, painfully aware that it’s a long way from her bedroom and the local café where most of her pictures are taken. Clambering through a ruined building, the Denim Palace crew follows, unperturbed.

Nwabisa’s styled herself and her crew for the shoot and so I go with the flow and photograph Keesha, Chris, Melody and Sam. But the first lady remains a mystery and soon the day is gone. I’ve got another job to get to and she’s got to set up her new shop at 8 Morrison Street, so we reschedule and go our separate ways.

The next day I’m hanging outside 8 Morrison waiting for Nwabisa at twilight. I’m late and so is she, so we end up shooting in the dying light, which creates a wonderful mood. She’s the candle, I’m the moth.

Finally we sit down together and it’s only then, when we’re sitting and talking, that she really opens up and I discover that Nwabisa is really as alluring as her pictures suggest.

“I’ve only been doing this for a year,” she explains, “but I guess I fell in love with fashion in 2012 when I got a job as an administrator at a fashion school in Durban. There I learned about textiles, pattern boards, sewing, stitching, but then I got a job at an FET college in Pietermaritzburg…”

She trails off and goes on to explain that her new job was a means to a dead end and the only way she could express herself was by making sure she always looked fly (in denim).

“I’ve always bought second-hand jeans on the streets. I sometimes rip or alter them and wear them out. People started asking me where I get my jeans. I told them I just thrift. I don’t deal with brand new clothes; I just take what is there and repurpose it. I realised that there was an opportunity, that perhaps I needed to take thrifting more seriously.”

Today Nwabisa has a dope Instagram and is surrounded by beautiful, talented people who work with her on the brand. It’s proof that social media and the internet really have created a space where anyone can learn, grow and flourish. But how did this all happen (almost) overnight?

Nwabisa is glowing in the hot Durban night as she explains, baring all that hides behind her coy expression…

“I started the Denim Palace Instagram in June last year. I started with R100, bought three pairs of jeans, posted them and sold them. Then I started getting orders and people went wild. You have to love thrifting. Not everyone can see what I see. I thrift on the streets of Durban and Joburg and when I dig through clothes-piles I look for brands like Levi's and unique, good-quality pieces.”

While most of Nwabisa’s buyers are in Joburg and Cape Town, she’s also got clients further afield in Africa and even Europe, couriering denim every day.

So how exactly did Nwabisa develop such definitive taste and style?

“It all comes from inspiration. I get inspiration online, from blogs, websites and Instagrammers. I decided on the denim theme and learnt how to build an audience, how to make people pay attention, when to post, how to shoot and how to run my page as a business”

The Denim Palace aesthetic is comfy and laidback, but it can also be sexy and intimate. I ask Nwabisa how she has created such an authentic personal brand.

“You have to embrace your body,” she explains. “I cater for all sizes from 28-40. My images prove that when you wear Denim Palace jeans you’re really comfortable. The older they are the better they get!”

Tell us a bit about the Denim Palace family and who’s pushing the brand?

“Myself and my friends take the pictures and we model. We don’t know anything about photography. We’ve never hired a professional photographer or a studio. It’s just about friends helping each other.”

Now, after six months of pushing her Denim Palace brand on Instagram, Nwabisa has decided to finally take the plunge.

“I’ve just quit my job in ‘Maritzburg and I’m moving back to Durban. I set up my shop yesterday at 8 Morrison and I’m building an online store,” she says with a radiant smile.

Despite being in the midst of so much change, Nwabisa seems totally confident and relaxed. Serene almost, with her Mona Lisa smile.

“I feel like 8 Morrison is gonna be really big one day,” she says. “It’s not that big yet but I see it as an opportunity. People from all over the country will want to come here and I wanna be part of that. I can relate to it. It’s my style. From here I can only expand…”

And just like the vintage and reworked denim pieces that she’s peddling, Denim Palace will only get better with age.