NOKUKHANYA MUSI, BIRD STORY AGENCY
IN 2015, Carole Mngometulu took a bold, risky step. With no formal training, no money, and no mentor, she started on a new journey, determined to become a fashion designer.
‘I only had God and my sewing machine,” she explained.
Closed off from most of the world during her boarding school days, it wasn’t until her final year at high school that she learned of the fashion scene in Eswatini.
Then, fresh out of high school, she landed her first job at Woolworth’s retail clothing store, where she sketched and sewed, during her lunch break. That experience fortified her for a launch into full-time fashion.
The early days were a struggle but as her skills grew, so did her client base.
“I definitely learnt the hard way. But I managed to get clients because I sold textiles at a lower price. I would practise and experiment on their clothes while sewing,” she added.
Luck was on her side.
“I designed an outfit for a friend who was attending the Miss Eswatini pageant. The chair of the pageant saw it, loved it and asked me to design an outfit for her daughter who was going to participate in a South African contest called Toddlers & Tiaras,” said the designer, who now goes by the name Carole Lubelo.
After this ‘big break’, the self-taught designer from Manzini, a small town in the kingdom of Eswatini, founded her clothing line, Norokarmali Studio, in 2017. In the same year, she joined the Visual Arts Network Swaziland (VANS), which selected her to showcase her designs at the SADC Fashion Festival.
“I got an opportunity to first showcase at the annual event in 2017. We showcased there for three years. Due to COVID, 2019 was the last year the event was held,” she explained.
Today, she creates stunning, unparalleled collections that bridge the gap between traditional textiles and fashion-forward designs. With every piece of apparel, she captures the culture and spirit of the Swati people.
“I see fashion as an ideal vehicle to share our cultures. A vehicle that can enable us to tell interesting and fascinating stories about our beautiful countries and the African continent,” she said.
Her womenswear brand, whose signature design is the Swazi national flag, has three fashion lines; Carollian, Lingwe, and Romango.
Lubelo has dressed beauty pageant title holders, including Mirel Lopes, Eswatini’s Miss EcoTourism and Zama Potgieter, a Mrs Africa finalist. These two designs won her the Best National Costume Awards in Eswatini.
More recently, in November 2022, Lubelo was awarded at the African Women Designers Week in Mozambique.
“Having my designs win awards was the sort of validation I needed. Having something I conceptualize in my head and bring to life to receive accolades was a life-changing experience for me. That’s not to say I don’t believe in my craft but it is reassuring to have the public embrace what you have to offer,” she said.
Locally, the designer has showcased her work during the Venda Tour organized by the Eswatini National Council of Arts and Culture. She has also exhibited at the Makoti Festival and the Gugothandayo Festival.
The young fashionista made her international debut in 2019 at the African Women Designers Week in Mozambique and, in March 2022, exhibited her designs at Fashion Without Borders in Sandton, South Africa.
“This was special because I never deemed myself good enough to participate in such a prestigious event, especially so early in my career,” said the designer.
However, the road to Sandton was full of quicksand. Because of inadequate finances, she almost didn’t make it.
“I’m blown away by how I was able to pull it off. One of my friends paid the registration fee, another took care of the COVID-19 test costs, another provided free accommodation for me, and a couple of my Facebook friends bought me a travelling case,” she said.
And while Lubelo is slowly inching her way to international recognition in fashion, she always thought she’d grow up to be a nurse.
“Growing up, fashion wasn’t so much considered a profession but a hobby. I loved to sketch my designs but I never knew that being a fashion designer was a profession,” she said.
Seven years later, Lubelo has no regrets about plunging into the fashion world despite the numerous challenges. She chooses to focus on the positives.
“The networking opportunities that have also come with these opportunities for me are invaluable. I have met many great designers and continue to learn from them,” she said.
“For the past seven years, all my focus in my work has been on building a foundation for our company. I look forward to taking bigger and bolder steps in the future to ensure I leave a fashion legacy not just in my country but in the continent,” she added.
This young designer, who has exhibited in South Africa, Mozambique, and Togo, now looks forward to opening branches across the continent and venturing into men’s clothing.