Empowering through fashion
By Nerissa Card
“Educate one woman in a house and you have educated an entire household.”
This is the motto on which Priscilla Bhika, owner of the Pietermaritzburg School of Fashion, has based her entire career.
Priscilla went to school in Pietermaritzburg, after which she studied fashion design and social work in Johannesburg.
“Fashion wasn’t looked at as a career at that time, but I was passionate about it. My mom had three girls, who she took pride in dressing up, and it rubbed off on me.
“When I told my family I wanted to study fashion, they supported me, but felt I needed something to fall back on, so I also studied social work,” says Priscilla.
“During my time as a social worker in Northdale, I realised that the women I was working with had very low self-esteem, a lot were unemployed and in abusive relationships. That moved me to start the school. I wanted to uplift people.”
Priscilla started her academy in the evenings in 1965, with two students.
“I encouraged the women I had met as a social worker to come to me and introduced lots of small improvement courses, from shoe-covering to baking and cooking. Slowly I introduced 43 courses, all aimed at empowering the women.
“I believed that just one small course would make them feel important and enable them to make some money and stop being the underdog,” she says.
“I was still doing social work because I needed to save to build up the school, but within three months I had to make a choice.
“I also found social work very hard. I felt I had to do something for everyone, but you can’t get involved in every person’s life. I don’t regret my time as a social worker, though. It has helped me in my dealings with the students, who come from all walks of life.
“After I gave up social work, I threw myself into running the school. We did day classes, night classes, Saturday classes. I started with one classroom and within eight months I had to open another classroom and another.”
Eventually, Priscilla bought a building in Retief Street, where the school has been based for the past 20 years.
She enrols 40 first-year and about 25 second-year students each year, five of whom she sponsors herself. She also runs her two-year course on Saturdays for those who are unable to study full time.
The diminutive woman, who has represented South Africa at fashion events all over the world, is extremely proud of the youngsters she takes under her wing, saying she has lost count of the number of competitions they have won.
“I learn from my kids every day. After all these years, I know very little.”
Priscilla tells me about a student, Martin Steenkamp, of whom she is particularly proud.
“He worked as a baker at a grocery store. He would come here every lunchtime, during his tea breaks, on his days off. Eventually he saved up enough money to do his second year full time.
“Now he is qualified and has just been named Fashion Innovator 2018 and Next Generation Emerging Designer at the Durban Fashion Fair.”
The MRP Foundation, a youth development organisation which aims to empower the country’s young people, awarded Martin a trip to Europe last year, based on his results.
And this year, three of Priscilla’s students were selected to appear on the SABC1 reality fashion programme, Raw Silk.
Of the more than 10 000 youngsters who have been educated at the school over the past 53 years, many have gone on to achieve great things. Some are working abroad, others are employed by the country’s top retailers and many have opened their own businesses, something Priscilla wholeheartedly supports.
“I encourage them to do that, to stand on their own two feet.”
Apart from the fashion side of the business, Priscilla also runs a catering school, which was born out of her original night-school offering.
“We offer baking, cooking, flower arranging and draping courses, as well as courses to help people run their own businesses.
“We have one full-time person who oversees the courses and then we bring in guest lecturers. The courses are fulltime or on Saturdays for those who work.”
So what about retirement?
“That is in god’s hands. I love to be here. I come here every day. It makes me feel alive. Being with the students gives me a good night’s sleep. I will have to retire at some time, but God will decide.”
● For those who would like a peek at all that is the Pietermaritzburg School of Fashion, beg, borrow or steal a ticket to its fabulous year-end showcase. It takes place on Saturday, December 1, at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, at 6.30pm for 7pm. This year’s theme is Fashion Unravelled, which showcases SA’s diversity.
*Main picture, top: This creation by designer Peaceful Xulu has the theme Shaka Zulu – The Shaka Zulu Dynasty. Models Andile Buthelezi, Nhlalonhle Khanyile, Lihle Bhengu and Mlamuliu Madondo.