A rebel with style

2008-06-06 00:00

“I have always been a bit of a rebel,” says Priscilla Bhika, with a mischievous glint in her eye. Bhika is an award-winning fashion designer and the founder and director of Pietermaritzburg’s School of Fashion, Dressmaking and Design. That she has, indeed, always been “a bit of a rebel” becomes clear as she recounts her life story.

“I was born in Johannesburg and grew up in Fordsburg. My father was a businessman so we moved around and lived in Richmond and Durban too. I am the youngest of three sisters. I went to school at Girls’ High, Crauser Street Girls’ High in Johannesburg and St Theresa’s in Durban. I had a passion for fashion from my childhood. I was always dressing up, wearing my mother’s shoes and playing with pieces of fabric.

“In those days we were expected to have a profession and be a doctor, a teacher or a lawyer. Fashion wasn’t regarded as a suitable career. The person who most inspired me and paid for my education was my grandfather. He said, ‘If that’s what she wants to do, let her do it.’ Because he believed in me and allowed me to follow my passion, I was driven to excel. I felt I couldn’t let him down.”

Bhika recalls being “right at the bottom of the pile” when she enrolled in the Fashion Academy in Johannesburg in 1961. “I was very young and I couldn’t draw, stitch or sew. I knew nothing about fashion. I did a three-year course that included practical and theoretical subjects plus commercial courses like shorthand, typing and business practice.

“My family all encouraged me and the first person I taught was my cousin’s wife. What I learnt at the academy, I taught her. She was very supportive and helped me to realise that I could put things across to other people. When I came to the city in 1964 I worked as a social worker for a while as I had trained briefly for this. In 1965 I started evening fashion, design and dressmaking classes in one classroom with 15 students. I found it very fulfilling to impart knowledge, unleash people’s creativity and motivate them to do their best at everything.

“I also realised the alarming situation many women were in as they used to come into our offices and relate stories of abuse, low self-esteem and discrimination. Women at that time were not educated, could not earn a living and were treated as subordinates. This sparked my enthusiasm for uplifting the nation via education so I opened a full-time college to provide entrepreneurship skills.”

At the time, South Africa was under the apartheid regime, but Bhika, the rebel, chose to resist. “Apartheid created particular challenges, because of my race and my gender. I ignored the Group Areas Act and opened a non-racial school. I had difficulty getting the necessary approval from the relevant authorities because I was not white and I was a woman wanting to open my own business. At that time very few women did this. I think they gave in to me because I was so determined and so passionate about the school.”

She recalls with glee being “the first non-white person” to enter competitions at the Royal Show about 40 years ago. “I entered the cake icing and flower arranging competitions. I had to ‘break the ice’ and show alongside talented artists. I encouraged my students to do so too because competition improves talent and allows you to become the best at what you do.”

Since its humble beginnings, the school has grown into a well-respected institution with 51 students. It has graduated 7 132 students in its 42 years and its students excel in local fashion competitions. It offers a three-year diploma covering all aspects of fashion design. This includes 49 craftwork skills that enable students to earn a living through home industries. Bhika said: “I adapt the curriculum to suit the students’ needs, so that even if they leave after just a year, they can stand on their own feet and earn a living. For example, I teach them patchwork, shoe covering, hat making, beading, tie-dying, silk-screening and fabric painting.

“I am very proud of the school. I get up to come here. When I open my eyes, it’s all about the school. I feel good if I have achieved what I want to by the end of the day.”

By opening her own business despite the obstacles, Bhika followed in the footsteps of another rebel and a strong influence in her life — her mother, “O. B.” Singh, who died recently, aged 95. “She was widowed when she was young so she owned and ran her own businesses, which was most unusual at that time. This made her very strong and determined. She was an inspirational person and I learnt a lot from her. My children were very inspired by her too. Not a day goes by that they do not speak about her.”

Bhika says her greatest achievements are her children: Mischal, an attorney, born in 1972, Shivalee born in 1976, fleet manager at McCarthy, and Nivasha, a fashion designer born in 1980. “Both girls are pregnant, so my first grandchildren are on the way,” Bhika says, with obvious pleasure. “When my children achieve something I am so tickled and proud. They inspire me because they are very creative and like to keep moving. They keep me on my toes.”

She also has a passion for the sari. She has created more than 50 ways to drape the six metres of fabric without any stitching. “It can be draped into almost anything – a ball gown, a wedding dress, evening dress or even pants. I am writing a book about its versatility but am only about a quarter finished as I keep thinking of new ways to use a sari. One of my most prized possessions is an African-print silk sari my daughter bought me in India as a birthday present. That sari brings together who I am.”

It comes as no surprise that Bhika’s two “icons” are rebels: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. “I am hugely motivated by them. Gandhi was not rich, but he had immense command over people. He spoke softly but achieved great things. Mandela gave up his young life for the benefit of others and their quality of life. I did not realise the influence he has had internationally, until I was at a fashion show in India for which Nivasha had created the models’ garments. A model came out wearing a garment made of Mandela print and when people saw Madiba’s face they all stood up and moved forward. I realised then that selfless deeds make an impression on the world.”

These two men seem to sum up Bhika’s approach to life, which she tells her students all the time: “If you are sure of yourself and know you are doing the right thing, you need not be afraid and your vision will earn you respect. You are never too young or too old to make a positive change in people’s lives, and everyone should strive to do so!”

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