Designing dresses for the rich and fabulous By Michael Salzwedel 846 words In his childhood in the 70s on his family’s farm just outside the rural Western Cape town of Riebeek West, Kobus Dippenaar spent his time building tree houses and imitating James Bond. Now, still driven by his penchant for adventure, he’s having a ball designing clothing for the “rich and fabulous”. The story behind the transition involves an enigmatic clothing designer – Elmine Marx – from Malmesbury, the town where Kobus matriculated. “She was a very sexy and formidable woman. Every girl wanted to look like her and all the boys had a crush on her,” he recalls. “She was an excellent designer and made the most amazing cocktail and end-of-year matric ball dresses. She helped me to understand structure,” he says.
But Kobus’ inspiration to become a clothing designer stemmed not only from Elmine. “My mother was a sewing teacher and also wrote a book on embroidery – I had quite a handy family.”
Suitably inspired, Kobus enrolled at Cape Technikon to study fashion design. With an education to his name, he returned inland and opened up a boutique in Paarl. Although he fared reasonably well, he was “too young and too far out of the fashion precinct”, so he packed up and headed to the UK.
There it was all about hardship and failing to find work. “A designer (George Patterson) offered me a job cleaning his place, and through that I learnt a bit about corsetry and hat-making,” Kobus says. Still battling to find his feet in the fashion industry and settle into a comfortable niche, he worked on an oyster farm in Scotland for two years before returning to South Africa in 2001 to open a design studio in the trendy De Waterkant area of Cape Town.
His lucky break came shortly thereafter; he was introduced to the editor of a prominent fashion magazine, which led to regular magazine work and his designs being featured on front covers. Thanks to this exposure, his reputation as a fashion designer rapidly burgeoned, and has shown no signs of slowing down.
In 2007 his designs were so well-received at various South African fashion weeks that he opened a studio in Johannesburg, taking advantage of the hefty surge in his reputation. “Pictures of my collections featured from Seattle to China, and I’ve also been asked to take part in international shows and fairs,” he says.
Kobus’ clients range from the rich to the very rich, the glamorous to the very glamorous. He has dressed a number of celebrities for their weddings and is currently working on Johannesburg socialite Edith Venter’s wedding dress. “All I can say is… colour,” he hints. He’s also designed dresses for actress Catriona Andrew and for Gabrielle Abrahams – the wife of broadcast personality Randall Abrahams – as well as for a host of other local and international celebrities.
Kobus is most well-known for his wedding dresses, but he also designs a range of other garments, including cocktail dresses, ball gowns and dresses suitable for extravagant horse races. The latter seems to be a particular forte of his – if his four-year consecutive string of Most Elegant Couple accolades at Cape Town’s glamorous J&B Met horse race is anything to go by.
Although Kobus has a self-confessed “old-school approach” to his designs, he is also able to produce a bespoke dress within 48 to 72 hours, even for clients – such as Blue Train passengers – who are moving between cities. “The client comes in for a consultation and we agree on a design. I measure the client and carry out a calico fitting a few hours later. Then the client embarks on their journey either to or from Cape Town or Johannesburg – I have offices in both – and the garment will be ready for them upon their arrival a day or two later.”
Kobus’ personal fashion extravagance is, unquestionably, shoes. “I just love my new Louis Vuittons – they’re so comfortable, they’re like slippers,” he smiles. And when he slips them off and puts his feet up for a rest, it’s usually with a good book in his hands, as reading forms part of his never-ending quest to “gain insight into the world and understand how everything ticks”.
When asked for his opinion on the role of fashion in society, Kobus jokes: “Now I feel exactly like a beauty queen under the spotlight, having to talk about world peace or saving the children.” His down-to-earth demeanour is evidenced as he continues his reply: “Fashion does have its place, but I’m not really into all the drama that surrounds it. I keep myself out of the industry to avoid its fakeness and flakiness.”
As for whether he is genuinely happy with where he is now, Kobus says: “I’m still trying to suss out the economy, but one thing is for sure, and that’s that I will never leave this country. I love what I do, and also the people I work with, so at the moment I am content with the way things are. I surround myself with people I love and care about greatly, and they also keep me humble.”