How Desré Buirski's dream of meeting Nelson Mandela resulted in the now famous Madiba Shirt
Illustrations by Thulisizwe Mamba
As a young Xhosa boy growing up in rural Transkei Nelson Mandela wore a blanket over one shoulder, pinned at the waist. When he was sent to school at seven-years-old his father took a pair of his own trousers, cut them off at the knee, and tied them at the waist with a string.
"I must have been a comical sight," Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom, "but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father's cut-off trousers."
When Mandela's father died he was sent to Mqhekezweni – the Great Place, where his love of good clothes can be traced to a childhood spent at the royal court of Qunu. One of the favourite jobs he did for his foster father, Chief Jongintaba, was to press his suits. "He owned half a dozen Western suits, and I spent many an hour carefully making the creases in his trousers." It was here that Mandela was given his first smart trousers, shirts, jackets and, when he graduated from primary school, his first pair of proper shoes – boots, which Mandela would shine at every opportunity.
Mandela cut a dashing figure as a young lawyer in smart double-breasted suits, but perhaps more noteworthy was when he was dressed down. Understanding the power of sartorial performance, Mandela would disguise himself in a worker's boiler suit to evade capture, and when he eventually was caught he chose to wear the traditional ceremonial dress of a Xhosa chief, a leopard skin kaross and beads, to court.
The apartheid authorities knew what power clothing held, too, and humiliated Mandela by forcing him to wear an edited version of a khaki prison uniform, denying him long trousers, underwear and socks.
However it was what Mandela chose to wear after his 27 years in prison which he'll always be remembered for. Eschewing the western suit (even declining an offer by Giorgio Armani to dress him) instead Mandela chose the loose-fitting, long-sleeved, brightly coloured, heavily patterned, straight cut, 'Madiba shirt' as he wanted "to feel freedom".
Enter Desré Buirski, who as Nelson Mandela's unofficial shirtmaker kept South Africa's iconic former president in more than 120 Madiba shirts. Superbalist met with Desré at her home where she showed us her collection of newspaper cuttings, magazine articles and photographs that she's collected over the years, presenting a chronological account of Mandela's public life in her shirts and photographed with Dr Hendrik Verwoerd's widow in Orania, saying goodbye to Queen Elizabeth as he leaves Buckingham Palace, with Andre Agassi and Brooke Shields, embraced by Naomi Campbell while flanked by Kate Moss and Christy Turlington, and with the likes of Bill Clinton, Will Smith, Muhammad Ali, Oprah Winfrey, David Beckham, Bono, Princess Diana and a host of world leaders.
Here's Desré in her own words, explaining how the great man came to wear her shirts…
By 1993 I had become incredibly interested in Nelson Mandela and part of my daily prayer ritual involved meeting the man. When I heard that he would be visiting the synagogue on Marais Road in Sea Point I decided to gift him a black long sleeve shirt, with a tan fish print in size XL, which still had the swing tag and the inner label reading "Desré's Exotic Imports", from when I had a store in California.
I wrapped it up, stashed a business card in the breast pocket and on the back of the card I wrote "Thank you for everything you have done and all the sacrifices you have made for our beloved country." I pushed my way through the crowds to his chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz and handed my gift to the bodyguard waiting there.
Inauguration Day I get a call from a friend who tells me that there's a photograph of Nelson Mandela in Die Burger wearing my shirt. It was the dress rehearsal of the opening of parliament. This was the first time Mandela wore my shirt. The fish shirt was later auctioned off to pay for the ANC's election campaign telephone bill.
I called his office, introduced myself to his personal assistant, Mary Mxadana, and then sent her a cut out of the photo, another letter, and two additional shirts as gifts for President Mandela. In January 1995 I received a letter from Mary on a parliamentary letterhead thanking me for the shirts with a quote from President Mandela himself.
In May that year I received an invite to have breakfast with the President. His first words to me were, "It's an honour to meet you." I was in awe and in a fit of utter excitement threw my arms around him. I went on to suggest that I would like to be of some kind of service or assistance to him. That I wasn't looking for a job, I was only interested in playing some role in his life or in the Government of National Unity.
Mandela said, "Right. How would you like to make silk shirts for me?" On the condition that he pay for them, but I would hear nothing of it. Of the more than 120 shirts I had since made for the man, all of them were gifts.
I asked him what his favourite colours were and he responded by telling me that he liked earth tones. I then requested a shirt that fits him best so that I could make the perfect pattern to use as a template for all his future shirts. The very first shirt I created for President Mandela was silk batik fabric in black, green and gold.
Over the years it has become clear to me that the shirts have been a public extension of Nelson Mandela's unique charm. I believe they appealed to him, and became his signature look, partly because he had to spend so many years in drab prison garb. I also think that he did not want to align himself publicly with powerful people who wore suits and ties. He wanted to stand out. To be different.