When you think of bespoke suits your mind could easily be led to imagine a pristine, mahogany-walled room with thick Persian rugs absorbing your footsteps, rendering a kind of silence that is heavy with history, almost stale in its odour of regal opulence and character.
When you step into House of Ole, this is not what you will find. Here, bespoke is not the kind rooted in a Beau Brummel philosophy of innovating while remaining inaccessible. For a fashion house birthed in South Africa, there is an understanding in House of Ole that in our past clothing became a way in which a brutalised and dispossessed people began to gather their dignity. A people who took pieces of clothing; hats, scarves, shawls, and patterned fabric and imbued them with cultural significance that bordered on spirituality. When street smart gangs in 1950’s Sophiatown draped themselves in iconic garments, it was a testament to how a people turned the ability to choose an outfit into an act of social and political defiance; looking good could be an act of war.
Olebogeng Ledimo, the founder of House of Ole, is a man who does not take his responsibility towards his craft lightly. When I meet him in his Randburg studio, there is an energy that is palpable, vibrating throughout. “We’re preparing for Loxion Culture for Fashion Week”, he tells me. While being the head of House of Ole, he is also the creative director for the legendary local streetwear brand that is now celebrating its 20th year. In managing the creative output of two fashion houses he is actually following in the footsteps of icons such as Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford who headed brands such as Chanel and Gucci, respectively. For him, it is almost a rite of passage to help to take a well-established fashion label and elevate it into a new era.
It was back in Standard 7 when a young Olebogeng envisioned what he wanted to become when he grew up. So clear was this vision that he literally wrote it down. Coming from a family of dressmakers, through his mother and aunt, the gene of fashion was threaded in his blood. Yet, convincing his parents of his desire to study fashion design proved a defeating challenge; the reality of a black child with dreams who was raised by those who grew up in a time when dreams did not come true. In order to appease his parent’s fears, he decided to study a BSc in IT.
During his studies, Olebogeng’s passion for fashion as a form of self-expression was never left wanting. “I remember my varsity days”, he reminisces, “when I would be on campus wearing a vest, bootleg jeans, and old dusty boots, nje. I would have a guitar over my shoulder which had vibrant, colourful straps and it created a beautiful contrast with my garments. But don’t ask me to play the guitar because I don’t know how to”, he laughs.
It was during his in-service training at Telkom in the early 2000’s when he walked into a Fashion Nation Designers Emporium store in his hometown of Bloemfontein to check the clothing, when right on the spot he was offered a job to model for the company and also be a sales assistant. His sense of personal style had quite literally opened doors for him. In the time he spent at the Emporium he learnt about putting a garment together from design to production to sale. This sparked a deep interest and appreciation for the process of fashion design.
The time spent working at Telkom confirmed for Olebogeng that he was not suited for the corporate world. After landing his first client, where had to make a wedding outfit, he finally decided to embrace his calling and House of Ole was born in 2006. His deep love for learning saw him take a giant leap when took his savings, wife and his daughter and moved to Europe to study tailoring at the London College of Fashion in 2009.
The result of this move bore testament to his knack of merging creativity and business when he launched “House of Ole – London”. It was a limited range specifically tailored to express the brand’s international potential while creating an allure of exclusivity associated with historical European tailoring establishments such as those found on Savile Row.
House of Ole’s approach to fashion design is to treat garments as wearable art. This philosophy is demonstrated in Olebogeng’s office where collages of photos from past fashion shows are framed in giant, ornate frames. Yet, he doesn’t believe that the artistic aspect of fashion should breed inaccessibility. “Fashion is a necessity”, he explains, “people will never stop buying clothes. Also, fashion is a function of belonging”. He uses our country’s history of socioeconomics around fashion in the ’60s and ’70s to elaborate. “In those days, fashion was shaped by a sense of belonging. People would identify you by your style. If you were an Ivy you dressed a certain way and you belonged to a certain group of people. If you were a Pantsula you dressed in a certain way, you spoke in a certain way and you walked and carried yourself in a certain way. Fashion, then, became the pivotal point of this thing that you believed that you were”.
Thus, the aesthetic that encapsulates House of Ole is one that straddles the line between art and functionality, self-expression and an unrelenting sense of collective belonging. This vision was personified when House of Ole collaborated with renowned South African fine artist Nelson Makamo for South African Fashion Week A/W 2015. The two monumental brands created a range of bespoke suits that were adorned with one of a kind Nelson Makamo hand painted pieces. When images of the suits landed on social media, the game was shook.
As the brand grew, more and more people began to seek out House of Ole garments. Naturally, many aspiring fashion designers also sought guidance and insights from Ole. Noticing that many young creatives faced similar challenges and subsequently had similar questions, he decided to do something about it. In 2017 Olebogeng created the fashion talent television show “Raw Silk”. The show, which is now on its third season, saw young creatives battle it out through different challenges and eliminations in order to win a grand prize. Even though it was a competition, the show aimed to equip and educate not just the contestants, but also bring the fashion industry into the homes of many kids who might have been struggling to explain their dream and passion for fashion to their families, just like he did.
Along the way to getting the fashion house where it is today, Olebogeng had to resist many of what he calls “beautiful distractions”. These were lucrative and sought after opportunities for employment that many would have killed for. These were opportunities that would have given him a reasonable level of stability in terms of income and work, but would most likely have killed his passion and his dream. Yet he resisted and kept navigating his brand through the toughest of times, which were numerous. He explains his philosophy in dealing with those tough times;
“There is something beautiful about wanting to quit. When you want to quit is when you have all kinds of pressure and all the resistant forces coming against your dream to the point where you can’t take it anymore and you consider quitting. But because you decided to not quit, it shows that your dream and vision is bigger than all the challenges that you have faced”.
One of the challenges that the brand faces is an interesting one and also one that the brand created itself; clients who love House of Ole garments want to retain its exclusivity to the extent that they don’t want to share the brand with others. They don’t want to see others wearing it. Nevertheless, this is a challenge that the biggest couture fashion houses around the world actually covert and they use it to build a cult-like following for their brands.
Ultimately, fashion is a language. Dresses, suits, and accessories are all words, sentences and paragraphs with which one can communicate their innermost being. Olebogeng Ledimo built House of Ole to help his clients to speak to the world through fashion. To craft and style each item to exude an eloquence in expressing oneself boldly yet with understated confidence in order to tell the world you are unashamedly just a kid from the hood who is destined for greatness.
Writer: Vus Ngxande Illustrator: Dav Andrew Editor: Palesa Motau Creative Director: George Gladwin Matsheke