The year was 1994, right after South Africa’s first democratic elections, when Desré Buirski first set eyes on Nelson Mandela at a synagogue in Sea Point. When Mandela delivered his speech that Saturday, urging the Jewish community to ask their relatives who had left the country during apartheid to come back home with the skills they had obtained, to help rebuild the country… it was as if he was talking directly to her, she says.
For Buirski’s family and many others had left apartheid South Africa in the the late ’80s in pursuit of a better life overseas. Buirski had brought a special gift for Mandela as a small gesture to wish him success in his new role as president. The present, wrapped and tucked under her arm, was an extra large cotton printed shirt labelled “Desré’s Exotic Imports” from her LA boutique she had just closed before leaving for South Africa.
“I approached his entourage and knocked on the driver’s window. He (the driver) didn’t even hesitate, he popped out of the car and signalled over to a bodyguard who took the gift and popped it in the boot… I thought I had achieved my dream that day because not only did I get to see Mandela but I also got the opportunity to give him a gift. I left there on a high note.
“I didn’t think it was that great a shirt, but I figured a gift is better than no gift. I expected Mandela to wear the shirt as a pyjama top or to give it away as a present,” she said.
But little did Buirski know that two days after the synagogue visit, the day after Mandela’s inauguration as president, her life was to take a different turn in ways she couldn’t have imagined.
“I was driving to the gym when I received a message from a friend telling me that there was a picture that I had to see in Die Burger newspaper. I thought it had to do with an environmental project I was working on;
“But there it was on page three, this beautiful photograph of Mandela wearing my shirt, and it still had all the wrinkles from the wrapping,” explains Buirski.
Soon after making contact with Mandela’s then typist and private secretary Mary Mxadana, Buirski started sending Mandela more shirts.
“Mxadana and I developed this rapport and… I started sending her more shirts for Mandela. That was the beginning of what I call my spiritual journey with Madiba,” says Buirski.
It is also how the story of the Presidential Shirt, fondly known as the “Madiba Shirt” began – a style and design of shirt that would become one of the most recognised across the world.
After studying graphic design in Southern California, SA-born Buirski pursued a successful career in fashion that led to her owning a boutique as well as working in clothing factories in Indonesia, where she learnt the Batik technique.
“My early influences came from my South African roots. I was very attracted to the Ndebele prints and graphics. I am still very drawn to their bold use of colour and the beading of the Zulus.
“Living in Southern California and getting involved in the industry there exposed me to the Hawaiian prints. That is when I became interested in printed men’s shirt.
“When I grew up in SA, men were not wearing bold shirts, they were very conservative. But I found that with men’s shirts I could play around with fabric and colour. Meshed together, my SA roots with my Hawaiian and the Indonesian influences became a melting pot of creativity for me,” says Buirski.
But Southern California was not home, so Buirski closed shop and returned to South Africa, opening her first local boutique, “Bali Blue” at the V&A Waterfront
“There was something about home that I was longing for and missing. As that longing started to emerge there was also this adoration that started to develop of this enigma about Mandela. I just wanted to meet this incredible man. I didn’t know that Madiba was a fashionista in his early days… it was certainly not a case of ‘I’m going to clothe that man one day’,” she explains.
Buirski got to meet Mandela almost a year after gifting him that first shirt. At the meeting, he suggested that she upgrade his shirts from cotton to silk.
“That was when the silk shirt-era began. Madiba had an entire collection of rainbow silk shirts, his favourite colours being earth tones. Over the years I made over 150 shirts for him. He literally wore them to all major events and to big international governmental meetings and banquets,” she says.
Not everyone was a fan of Mandela’s shirts. Mandela confided to Buirski that one of his close friends, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu felt his shirts were not appropriate attire for a president. And that Italian designer Giorgio Armani was quite perturbed that he was not wearing any of the well-tailored suits he had sent him.
“Madiba told me that he loved the shirts because they gave him a sense of freedom, as opposed to being in a suit and tie. Not only was he a fashion trendsetter, but he was also political trendsetter. He did things that society had never seen before,” says Buirski.
I meet Buirski at the Presidential Shirt studio in Observatory where their new collection, “The Eclection” is on display, designed by a creative team, including Logan Rodrigeuz.
The collection, fresh from the SA Menswear Week runway, is a miscellany of patterned batiks, handpainted silk, digital and isishweshwe prints. The showcase received a standing ovation at the event.
The pictures are by SDR Photo
“Designing the debut collection has been an incredibly humbling experience because it’s such an incredible brand to work for. Not only is it an incredible brand, but there is rich history behind it… moments that were seen worldwide,” says Rodrigeuz, a fashion design graduate.
The collection was designed with today’s modern, stylish man in mind, he
“When the company started in 1994 everything was comfort fit and very relaxed for men of all shapes and sizes. With the new collection we wanted to approach the younger crowd, the businessman that wants to wear a sharp suit to the office but still have a Presidential Shirt underneath. Many garments are available in slim fit.
“The Presidential Shirt man is strong, a man who knows that when he puts on our clothing that there is a story behind it. A man that understands who he is, wants to be associated with the brand and who appreciates the craftsmanship that goes into each garment,” says Rodrigeuz.
Presidential Shirt will be opening a new shop at Mandela Square in Sandton, Joburg in October.
“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” says Buirski. “For me it wasn’t just about making shirts for Mandela but he also taught me many things, such as inspiring other people with my work and to embrace the spirit of Ubuntu.
“Hopefully, the shirts continue to tell a story of Madiba’s legacy… through the shirts I get to tell some of his stories and that is the beauty of it,” adds Buirski.
This feature was first published in the Cape Argus on July 22 2015.