Shweshwe-inspired swimwear a hit

Shweshwekini men's and women's swimwear is growing in popularity.
Shweshwekini men's and women's swimwear is growing in popularity.
Image: Supplied

The world is clamoring for all things African and creative individuals are taking up the call to provide authentic Africaness to the masses.

One of those people is Refiloe Mapitso Thaisi, the creative director and founder of Shweshwekini, a swimwear and activewear label.

The bright blue patterns of the shweshwe fabric associated with the Sotho people, shaped into swimwear, paint an appealing and vibrant picture. Her products are unmissable and stand out from other offerings, which accounts for their popularity.

Thaisi started the business in 2017, when she was 25 years old. She wanted something that was reflective of the Africa we all know, love and live in.

"As a little girl growing up I used to be fascinated by the idea of an African bikini or like seeing more African prints in bikinis. You know, when you walk into a store seeing something authentically African in swimwear that you can also wear. I didn't see that," she says.

Refiloe Mapitso Thaisi, founder and owner of Shweshwekini.
Refiloe Mapitso Thaisi, founder and owner of Shweshwekini.
Image: Supplied

The 27-year-old says the lack of diversity, coupled with having trouble finding swimwear that fit, caused her to stop buying swimwear altogether.

An occupational therapist by profession, the University of Cape Town graduate says that swimwear was always in her plans.

"I decided that if I was to ever go into swimwear or have a swimwear brand, it would have to have an African significance to it."

After some research she realised that there were not a lot of people locally who were doing African swimwear and it was something she could do.

One of her challenges was lack of knowledge of the fashion industry and she struggled with pricing her product.

Seshweshwe attire and jaw-dropping tops.
Seshweshwe attire and jaw-dropping tops.
Image: Supplied

"I funded the business from my salary. That means I could not produce large amounts. When I started out I started with too many styles and too many colours, which was a problem when it came to production."

Thaisi is based in Sandton but calls herself an 'immigrant' because her parents are from Lesotho, though she was born in SA and grew up in the Free State.

Shweshwekini recently added activewear to its range. "I'm still testing the activewear out and I'm thinking of ways to expand it."

The vibract colours and designs paint a perfect picture.
The vibract colours and designs paint a perfect picture.
Image: Supplied

Thaisi designs the line and then outsources pattern making and manufacturing. The whole process has taught her the importance of doing her research.

"Doing physical groundwork, actual physical walking into factories, has helped me."

She says fashion weeks like SA Fashion Week have also been a valuable resource.

"They've got all the knowledge, the manufacturers. Call them and ask for the right referrals. Gumtree as well, but it also helps to work on a referral basis on these," she says.

She decides on what will make the cut in terms of design, from surveying her customers so she can really give people what they want. Her items, which also include kimonos, normally cost R900 and above.

Stunning pants by Thaisi.
Stunning pants by Thaisi.
Image: Supplied

"I've received a very good response from the public, even men. I have men asking for more Shweshwekini products. The response has been generally positive and people love the brand," she says.

"It hasn't been without its own criticisms, such as not catering for fuller-figured women. That's what I want to get into next year.

"I also want to get into modest wear, where you cater for people who are Muslim who want to cover up more. I've also gotten that feedback."

Thaisi says the feedback pushes her to excel and do better, and encourages her as she can see that people from all walks of life want to wear her products. The entrepreneur still works with Wits University as an occupational therapist and she's recently obtained her master's in human rights law from UCT.

"I'm trying to keep myself in the academic space because I find it so fulfilling."

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