Mandela shirts showed he was true to himself: tailor

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The man whose designs were made famous by the anti-apartheid icon has fond memories of his most high-profile client, who was “not afraid” to show the world who he was through his trademark colourful shirts.

“All the shops have been calling,” he said, raising his voice above the hum of sewing machines and African music in his bustling workshop in Abidjan, where some 30 workers were racing to fill orders.

“We had a special stock prepared, but it’s all gone. We’re making more,” the tailor said, a tape measure around his neck and clad in his own Mandela-style flowing shirt of blue and pink batik prints with yellow sleeves.

In his boutique across from the workshop in the Ivorian city’s Treichville quarter, photos of celebrity clients line the wall, including model Naomi Campbell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN chief Kofi Annan and, of course, his favourite customer Mandela.

Ouedraogo said Mandela was a world leader who dared to dress differently on the global stage, shunning the standard uniform of a dark suit to proudly wear shirts that celebrated African patterns and colours.

“The difference with the others is that wearing my shirts he never asked: ‘Does this suit me? I don’t look ridiculous? Shouldn’t I dress more like this or that head of state?’

“He was someone who… lived how he wanted to live. He was daring, he was not afraid to wear this, he was not embarrassed,” Ouedraogo said. “He was not like the others.”

He said his relationship with the Nobel Peace laureate began “in 1994 or 1995” when South African singer Miriam Makeba bought some of his shirts as a gift for Mandela, and Ouedraogo threw in a couple more.

“Later I received a handwritten letter from him that said: ‘The Africa of tomorrow belongs to the creators of richness’.”

The pair met face-to-face in 1998, when then-president Mandela spent half an hour with him on the sidelines of an African summit.

“Very often when you are received by heads of state, there is a barrier between you. But not with him,” Ouedraogo said. He recalled how Mandela took him by the arm, tapped his head and said: ‘There is a lot going on in this head here’.”

“He could have said: ‘Who is this guy, some designer or tailor?’… But he listened to me. He took me by the hand even though he had never met me. We went for a walk in the garden.”

After that encounter, Ouedraogo became known as Mandela’s tailor.

His Pathe O shirts, which range in price from 15,000 to 120,000 CFA francs (23 to 183 euros) are now sold in around a dozen African capitals, and Ouedraogo readily admits he has Mandela to thank for being his brand ambassador.

“Many people benefitted from his name, including us,” he said.

The Burkina Faso-born entrepeneur said he would travel to South Africa this week to pay his final respects to Mandela, whose body is lying in state in Pretoria ahead of his funeral on Sunday.

He said he wanted to pass on his condolences to Mandela’s family. “He was like a father to me.”

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