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Desré Buirski has always been a shining light in my life who truly inspires me.

I met Desré in Bali in the 1990’s. We had an instant connection and have remained friends since then.

Born in South Africa and living the life of an international fashion guru jet-setter for the stars, Desré reveals a very special connection with one the most influential men in history as being the personal stylist for Nelson Mandela.

Leslie: Please tell me a little about your life growing up in South Africa in your youth. How it was to deal with apartheid at the time?

Desré: It was a dichotomy growing up in South Africa.

I am blessed to be born in such a beautiful country. Yet, there were so many unkind, inhumane laws.

My friends and I were always talking about the sadness of it all and wishing somehow it would change peacefully in our life time. I think there was lot of shame and guilt we carried in our hearts.

I realize in retrospect how fortunate we had Nelson Mandela to lead us out of the dark days of apartheid into the light of freedom, peace and forgiveness. He found a way to peacefully end apartheid and usher in a new era of freedom and democracy in South Africa.

How fortunate to be alive on earth during his lifetime. How blessed I was to be so close to him and to have had the opportunity to serve him in such an unexpected and extraordinary way.

Leslie: How did you get into the fashion industry? 

Desré: My family and I immigrated to the USA in 1980. My first job was working in a restaurant in Dana Point California and also attended Orange Coast College where I completed a course in graphic design and nutrition

I was influenced by my African roots as well as the Hawaiian tropical prints that California adopted.

In 1981 I was offered a job working with a clothing company that was producing clothing in Indonesia, in Central Java and Bali.

I was also attending the trade shows in New York and all over America.

Leslie: How did you come to meet Nelson Mandela and how were you assigned to be his stylist?

Desré: I returned back to South Africa in 1992 after being drawn to the excitement and the wonder of the eminent New South Africa.

I was longing to come home and be a part of this unfolding. Something also magnetically or magically was pulling me home. It was without any doubt the energy of Nelson Mandela and everything he represented that captured my attention. For the past two years I had taken to daily wishing, dreaming and praying that one day I would get to meet him in person.

April 1994 was the first democratic election and that was a sight to behold as South Africa magically and peacefully ushered in new era.

One week after our elections and 2 days before Nelson Mandela’s inauguration I heard that he had just been to address a local community mosque on that Friday night and was addressing the local synagogue on the Saturday morning.

I was so excited that this may be the moment that I could catch a glimpse of this man and perhaps hear him speak. This was enough to make me realize that I had to be there.

I decided it was necessary to give him a gift just to say thank you for everything he had done and all the sacrifices he had made for our country.

It was 10pm that Friday and with all shops closed the only plan I could come up with was I found an extra large black batik shirt with tan fishes on it and it still had the tag on it from my shop which I had closed two and half years before in Los Angeles. That label was Desre’s Exotic Imports. I really didn’t think he would wear it and I thought at best he may wear it for a pajama top or he could give it away.

I went to the synagogue that next day with the shirt gift wrapped with a personal note written in tiny handwriting on the back of my business card. In my element knowing I was about to see Nelson Mandela. When I arrived there were a handful of newspaper journalist photographers waiting for him. The red carpet was laid out from the street to the entrance of the synagogue in his honor. I approached the photographers thinking they may know how or who I could give the gift to. How wrong I was. They laughed and asked if I was joking, and told me that the powers that be there will think it is a bomb. A little embarrassed I went inside and decided that I would have to figure out how to get the gift to him later.

The next thing I knew, I was watching my hero enter the synagogue and the he began to make his speech. I felt like he was talking to me.Watching and listening to him I thought I had achieved my dream. It was a very tearful and magical moment as he noted that many families had been separated by apartheid and parents and children all scattered all over the world. I was one of those with my entire family now living in the USA and me alone back in South Africa. He urged us to ask them to return home with skills they had learned as South Africa needed them and that we were going to succeed as a unified country in freedom, peace and democracy.

After the proceedings I went outside in the hope of finding his driver. Sure enough his Mercedes was parked outside.

I approached the driver who so kindly offered assistance and pointed me to his bodyguard standing at the back of the vehicle. Within moments this man engaged with me and was so happy to take the gift on Madiba’s behalf and promised to give it to him and in seconds my gift was safely in the boot of The Presidents vehicle. That was it. My dream happened.

Two days later was the biggest inauguration the world had ever seen. Nelson Mandela took the stage and became South Africa’s first democratically elected black president.

The next day the 11th of May 1994 I remember this day so clearly. A friend called me and asked me if I had seen this particular newspaper to which I replied I had not. “Well,” she said “you had better go and get it”. To my absolute astonishment in newspaper on page 3 appeared a photograph of Nelson Mandela wearing the humble fish shirt to the dress rehearsal of his inauguration! My mind and brain could not believe this. I thought as I looked, I know it is my shirt but I know it cannot be. I was literally pinching myself in disbelief and sheer excitement. Again I thought that now I had really achieved my dream. Seeing Nelson Mandela in real life and now he wore my gift, this was beyond anything I had imagined in my wildest dreams!

National News Paper 11th May 1994

After this dream experience I decided to contact his personal assistant Mary Maxadana . She kindly welcomed me and we became close colleagues and friends. During that year I sent many more shirts to Nelson Mandela via Mary.

During the year of 1994 I received letters of thanks from Nelson Mandela and one year later in May of 1995 I was invited to have tea with the Honourable President Nelson Mandela.

Please read my book ‘Mandela’s Shirts and Me’ if you are keen to know the full story and how it unfolded from here into the most amazing journey that lasted over 16 years. It was truly such an honour and an incredible privileged to have known and served this exceptional human being, I came to know as Nelson Mandela, Madiba, Tata, Father of our nation and the world.

 Leslie: To be in the presence of Madiba on such a personal level must have been incredible.What are the things you remember about his personality? 

Desre: I have been so incredibly privileged to have been able to share so many truly magical experiences with Nelson Mandela. He is very warm and humble…upon greeting me for the first time he said “It’s an honor to meet you”.

He has a glowing aura of love emanating from him. His persona is so striking and he has this authentic yet very powerful presence of energy about him. Very dynamic. He is truly a charismatic gentleman.

I am so blessed to have been able to hug him so many times. To have been in his company and to have been invited to many of his Presidential banquets including President Suharto and President Bill Clinton to whom he introduced me to as his shirt designer.

Madiba is light hearted and funny and loves to tell early childhood school stories.

One afternoon at his home in Cape Town in 1996 (I had just delivered 7 silk shirts especially made for his trip to London to stay with the Queen), President Mandela told me that Giorgio Armani had just called him to express his disappointment that he was not wearing the suits he had sent him and instead wearing these brightly printed shirts. (What a feather in my heart!).

Madiba also told me that when he and his colleagues arrived in prison and were ordered to strip down to bare naked that at that moment when he looked around and saw all of his comrades and himself included standing there with nothing on that is when he realized that “Clothes Maketh a Man”.

Leslie: Did Mandela have any unusual requests in his designs or did you decide on his style?

Desré: Just in the beginning Madiba knew that he wanted silk shirts and he requested earth tones. But 150 silk shirts later he had every colour of the rainbow. He gave me complete freedom of expression with creating his shirts.

Leslie: Was there any shirt you designed for him that was his favorite? What was yours?

Desré: This black silk collection with Swarovski crystal buttons and silver thread embroidery with Africa on the pocket was one of my personal favourites.

Desré presenting Nelson Mandela with the Black Silk African Diamante’ Shirt February 2007

Bob Geldorf with Madiba on his 90th Birthday

Nelson Mandela Saluting the world on his 90th Birthday in London.

Leslie: Is there any special memory in your personal time with Mandela that you would like to share with us?

Desré: In February 2007 at his and Mama Graca Maschelle’s (Mandela’s wife) home in Mozambique, I was sitting on the arm of his study chair. We were alone and he said something to me that was so deep I choked. I could not respond.

At that moment he looked up at me and said, “I only have one regret!”(I gasped!)

“I wish I never did anything wrong in my life”.

That was the most beautiful precious moment I had the honor of experiencing with him.

I still cry every time I think of this.

The man has done so much, given so much love, his endless time, his forgiveness, he sacrificed so much and has been such a guiding light to South Africa and the entire world yet with all he has done..knowing his one regret made me realize how little we give, how selfish we are and certainly shone a light in my direction to become more mindful, more caring and do more. Actually to be honest it is very hard to express how deeply this particular experience impacted me and how it is still impacting my being.

Madiba makes you want to be a better person and make a difference in our world. He has impacted my being in the most profound way. I often wake up and wonder if it was all just a dream. It just seems too dream-like to fathom as reality.

This personal message from him I take as an instruction to do the best I can with my time on this earth.

Leslie: How did the passing on Madiba affect you?

Desré: I miss him dearly. I miss knowing that he is here on earth for us to count on, to fix our earthly problems. I talk to him often as I do my parents that have passed over.

Knowing he is no longer here on earth I have made it my mission to spread his relevant messages .Sharing my story and the lessons I have learned through my experiences with him and in this way keep Nelson Mandela’s Legacy Alive.

Desré’s 12 life principles learnt from Madiba include:

  1. Your health is your most valuable asset.
  2. There is a potential of unseen power that we have not harnessed.
  3. Everything is energy including our thoughts.
  4. The bigger the dream the bigger the manifestation of the dream.
  5. Visualize your dreams in detail.
  6. Time is precious.
  7. Take a stand for what you believe in.
  8. Never give up on your dreams.
  9. Paying great attention to detail.
  10. Inspire and encourage others to achieve their dreams
  11. Lead by example.
  12. Living by the principal of Ubuntu. (Which means living by the principals of humanity &compassion.)
Leslie: What are your future plans for your fashion business?

Desré: I am the founder and brand ambassador of Presidential Shirt.

We have two stores in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mandela Square in Sandton &Oliver Tambo International Airport.

I envision the brand expanding to New York and London.

I travel around South Africa and the world as a keynote speaker sharing my story, inspiring others to achieve their dreams and in this way I hope to keep Nelson Mandela’s Legacy Alive.

Leslie: Thank you so much Desré for giving us the beautiful insights with Madiba and your connection with him. You are an inspiration to me.

Desré: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure Leslie.

Desré Buirski is the author of ‘Mandela’s Shirts and Me’ available at Amazon and other online bookstores.
Leslie: Desré, I am so excited about this interview. Thank you!

Desré: Thank you Leslie. It’s an honour to share my story with you.