Steve Mandy painted his way onto the fashion scene in 2006 and has been making much more than pretty pictures ever since. Who would have thought that a once successful financial planner at one of the country’s leading financial institutions would give it all up to pursue his passion, art. But at the age of 41 that is exactly what he did, he swapped his calculator and financial plans for a paint brush and an easel. He made the decision to do so when he discovered he could draw and a few lessons later, to refine his new skill and armed with nothing more than a dream, he opened a little gallery in Glenwood, Durban.
To promote his gallery he began painting on t-shirts which in turn saw him with a new opportunity, to enter the fashion scene. Today he is respected for the work he does on various fabrics and has just recently returned, for the second time from Africa Fashion Week in London.
The prestigious event is a platform on which the African fashion industry has an opportunity to showcase its collective talent and creativity in London, once a year.
Steve is a trailblazer and always experimenting with ideas and paint techniques. Almost two years ago he began painting with bleach, the process removes colour rather than adding it and this is what began my intrigue with his work. So as soon as he returned from the UK, we simply had to take the opportunity to find out more about the man behind the brand, Steve Mandy Designs and also about his experience in London.
1. Would you describe yourself more as an artist or as a designer
I think I have turned the corner now. I am a fashion artist dealing in clothing. I still do the occasional oil painting, (and I love it) but my main business is fashion.
2. How did you decide to make the leap from financial planner to artist
There was no decision to be made. When I discovered I could draw accurately I had to pursue it, or, I would end up wondering what might have been for the rest of my life.
3. It must have been frightening at the time – tell us a little more
It was, but I had a lot of confidence that I could make at least SOME money each month and I was in a position where I could live off the sniff of an oil rag.
4. How have you found the transition from traditional artist to ‘fashion designer’
It’s something that happened by accident. When I resigned from Liberty I opened a small gallery in Glenwood. In an initiative to promote the gallery I painted the images on display onto tee shirts. Fashion guru Kevin Ellis spotted them and asked if I could paint his garments for entry in the J&B Met fashion comp. We won that competition together and many more thereafter, and so, the transition was made.
5. Describe your experience at Africa Fashion Week, second time around – What was the most valuable thing/lesson you took away from it
This year AFWL was predictably bigger and better than ever before. The venue was superb, The organisation was clickety click, the event was publicized extensively, the models were beautiful and professional and the crowd was full of people with real interest in African Fashion, be it on a personal or professional level. The most important thing about this show for me was that it was my second show. I already had contacts, people knew what I did and looked forward to my show with expectation and anticipation (no pressure).
6. you’re doing exciting things with bleach, tell us more…
About 4 years ago, bleach manufacturers realized that people often use bleach to clean fabrics and took out the corrosive elements to make this less destructive. At the same time gel bleach was introduced. The combination of these two made it viable to paint on fabric in bleach. Bleach allows you to make marks on material without altering the texture and feel of the fabric. The marks made are soft and blend into the fabric offering a beautiful, natural image. Painting in bleach requires a shift in perspective. You have to paint the light instead of the dark parts of your image. It takes a lot of practice but can be done. The other thing is that it is very unforgiving. You cannot erase mistakes.
7. What has been your greatest challenge in the fashion industry so far
Everything I do with clothing has never been seen before, and therefore, takes a bit of getting used to. When someone sees my clothing on a rail or mannequin they naturally assume that its printed, and wonder why it is a bit more expensive than what they are used to. The challenge for me is to make it public knowledge that SMD clothing is a lot more special than that. Everything I paint, every garment is a “one off”. I might duplicate an image as best I can but it will never be identical. That is why I paint in public. I paint in restaurants (La Bella, SpigaD’ora and Zacks Windermere) every day in plain view.
8. What do you love most about the industry
Instant gratification. When I paint something personalized for someone they are generally blown away, I find it so rewarding to see their eyes light up when they see it. My fashion clothing is very wearable but also unique, when someone tries on one of my garments and looks stunning! Finally, the fashion shows. Some of the most beautiful women in the world strutting down the catwalk in SMD clothing looking gorgeous, it just melts me.
9. Do you have any designers/styles that inspire you
I often work with designers to help produce something unique for a client or a show, each one has a different direction of creativity. HarounHansrot has an eastern influence, Dax Martin works with lingere and swimwear so the images need to be tailored for that, Karen Monk-Klijnstra has a flamboyant colourful pallet. Its difficult to single out a single designer, they all inspire me in such different ways.
10. Do you have a favourite type of fabric you like to work with
Natural fabrics are best to work with in bleach, I find most of the synthetic materials don’t respond to bleach and are non absorbent for fabric inks.
11. When you’re not playing with bleach what do you do to relax and unwind
I play a bit of guitar and sing a little. Sometimes I get on the open mic at Zacks and do a little number with John Skuy. That’s a lot of fun.
12. If you were given the opportunity to design and style anyone in the world, who would it be and what would you create for him/her
I met Jennifer Su a couple of years ago while working with Dax Martin on Audi Fashion Week. She is such a down to earth character and she wears SMD with such pride. She would be one. Samuel L Jackson likes to be seen in Naked Ape clothing (Sheldon Kopman) – he is such a smooth trendoid. Would love to see him in something I have worked on.
13. One line that best describes you
To quote my mum. “He dipped his paint brush in the many pots and painted himself a bright and colourful future”. She sent me this one line in a card many years before she died and I realised how well that summed me up. I make my future.
Look out for steve mandy at hub of africa fashion week & in ethiopia he will be in a fun & funky newcollaboration with naked ape!
Photo credits: Samantha sublal
Model: romona singh