Dorcas Emelia, 24, is a fashion designer who was born in Congo but moved to Cape Town, South Africa in her teens. She graduated from fashion design school, Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion Design. Dorcas has launched three collections, including knitwear which is her specialisation, and has her own online store, Emelia D

Fundza had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Dorcas to talk more about her fashion career.

Fundza: Can you share a bit more about your background and how you started in the fashion industry?

Dorcas: My name is Dorcas, like from the Bible. And Dorcas used to be a seamstress in the Bible. And so, I think I’ve always believed that it was something that was embedded in me, I guess from the name. Growing up, apparently, I was always with my aunt, who used to sew and I was always near the machine. I asked my parents to go to fashion school, and they were like they were very surprised, but they never had a problem with it. 

But how I started my business was every year, we had to do a business project, we had a business class. So it was meant for us to practice running a fashion business. So then, from there, I think the first project that we did, there were four of us, and it was very successful. 

During the time of COVID I fell in love with the other side of fashion, which is styling and photography. I DM’d many stylists on Instagram, and then eventually, one of the biggest stylists in South Africa accepted me to be his assistant, and I started assisting him and I learned a lot of stuff from that. 

Fundza: How would you describe your design aesthetic or your signature style?

Dorcas: I would say everything that I’ve done is African-inspired, especially Congolese because I’m from Congo. I love colours, colours are a very important part of everything that I design. I’m like that person who doesn’t have black clothes. I love prints as well. Print is one big thing that’s also for the brand.

Fundza: Are there any particular fashion icons or designers that influenced your work?

Dorcas: Laduma is a South African fashion designer. If I’m inspired by designers, I’m usually inspired by African designers, mainly South Africans, because those are the ones I’m exposed to. Because those are the ones that I actually get to meet. I have met Laduma, really love his work and love his story. I also really love Lukhanyo Mdingi. He is also a designer from Cape Town, really love him and his work. And he’s someone that I’ve met and that I’ve hung out with a few times, and for someone who’s won the LVMH award, the biggest fashion award in the world, he is very humble. I would say a lot of African designers, especially South African designers like Thebe Magugu are inspirational.

Fundza: Can you share more about the story behind the designs that you create?

My first collection was inspired by La Sape, which is a Congolese movement, where men were inspired by what colonists were wearing, suits in particular. They literally worked in exchange for clothes. 

My second collection was the knitwear collection, which is what I specialise in. It was inspired by men in my family and mainly when the MeToo movement started and when people started labelling men as trash. I understand why women did that, but at the same time, not all men are trash. So that was the core of the core inspiration behind that collection. And then I then just played around with storytelling of the men in my family, but also celebrating the women in my family who have helped the men get to where they are and get our family to where we are today. So that was that and that was all an intricate thing, that’s why I chose knitwear, to do that. 

My third collection was inspired by the Bakuba people. That was when I created my first print and studied the Bakubas, what they do, how they started the prints. And then the rest that I’m doing now, which is part of my commercial collection, is literally survival, to make money and to grow my business to a point where I have a constant cash flow.

Fundza: What are the challenges are of a fashion designer?

Dorcas: Having lots of people in the field does make it very difficult because the competition is tight, not just as a designer, but as a business as well. You’re trying to think, what can I do differently? How can I make my shirt different from the other one, that already exists? And then manufacturing is a big problem because then again, there are only a few manufacturers around, especially for knitwear.

Money is a challenge –  you can’t do anything without money. That’s one thing I have realised that is very important in this game. Me, as a foreigner, it becomes even more difficult when you can’t get a loan, you can’t get a credit card. Everything that you do is cash-based or borrowing from someone, so it becomes even more tricky.

Fundza: What advice do you have for someone who wants to explore fashion design as a career?

Dorcas: It’s for the strong, you need to be tough because it’s not easy. It depends who you know because they help you get to where you need to be. There are people who gatekeep the fashion industry because everyone wants to know who the manufacturer is, and where they buy the fabrics. Who does what? So, you have to be prepared for gatekeeping and it all depends on who you meet.


Tell us: What have you learnt from Dorcas about being a fashion designer?

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