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the Big Apple for Maritzburg’s star student designer

Life changing experience in the Big Apple for Maritzburg’s star student designer

Pietermaritzburg School of Fashion designer Leona Pillay with her outfit that won the 2016 Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Award, presented by Durban Fashion Fair, modelled by Mahlatse Makwela. Kevin Sawyer/Gameplan Media

For young Pietermaritzburg based student fashion designer Leona Pillay, the whirlwind that started with her entry into the Vodacom Durban Young Designer Award, presented by Durban Fashion Fair, has just ended with a heady trip to New York that has changed her life forever.

Pillay, who studies at the Pietermaritzburg School of Fashion Design, blew the judges away with her stunning blue and beige laser cut ensemble that saw her come up trumps against a huge and very talented field of student designers at last year’s Young Designer Award finals.

Her prize, a trip to New York to attend the New York Fashion Week with the Vodacom Durban July Fashion Programme director Tiffany Prior, opened up a whole new avenue in the life of the young star, who triumphed despite facing numerous challenges to the start of her fashion design career.

Winning this trip to New York City was not only a dream come true, but a feeling I couldn’t contain,” bubbled Pillay on her return from the icy US fashion capital. I get emotional thinking about it today. Everything I did on this trip, I had never done before,” she said, after returning to her hometown, flying first class on Delta Airlines. “Winning the Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Award competition was unexpected, mostly because I used to doubt myself,” said Pillay. “Especially where I come from.”

Her interest in fashion started at school. “I used to do sketches of clothing and found I was good at it,” said Pillay. “I wanted to see what I saw on paper come to life, and I knew that I could do it through design.

She thought that a chance to pursue a career in fashion was fading after she fell pregnant shortly after matric, and she and her new husband moved in with her mother. Pillay was raised by her mother, who despite being the sole bread winner, asked her to choose a career path that she would fund the training for.

The first thing I said was fashion, without a doubt,” recalls Pillay. “So with the help of my mum taking care of the little one, I was able to go to college!

Her talent quickly took her to the top of her class at the Pietermaritzburg School of Fashion Design, which celebrated her moment of glory when she was announced as the winner of the prestigious Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Award at the raceday last year. In April she jetted to the Big Apple, chaperoned by Prior, to make the most of her once-in-a-lifetime prize.

I attended a show, getting up close with garments on the rail, and I visited the fashion institute, giving me some knowledge on African American design history,” said Pillay. “One day I walked into the department store SAKS and got blown away by branded garments being so crisp and stitched to perfection. I said to Tiffany Prior : “If this is heaven, I’m so ready to die”. I learnt that fashion is so exciting! I also learnt that its OK to say you don’t know, it just means there is room to learn. As a fashion designer I can say I will never be the same again. It doesn’t matter where you come from. All that matters is where you wish to head,” said Pillay.

She urged any aspiring young student designer to get involved with the Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Award competition, and to use it as a massive growth and learning experience. “It’s your turn to go even higher. Good luck!” she added.

The 2017 Vodacom Durban July takes place at Greyville Racecourse on Saturday 1 July. More information can be found at

Winner of the 2016 Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Award, presented by Durban Fashion Fair, Leona Pillay, soaks up the sights and sounds of the Big Apple at the World Trade Centre 911 memorial. Tiffany Prior/Gameplan Media


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