Fashion’s new colour
It was a chance encounter with top couture designer Gert-Johan Coetzee that turned Thando Hopa’s life around.
Now the young lawyer with albinism is the toast of South Africa’s fashion elite.
She’s graceful and soft-spoken, a quietly confident woman who has experienced her fair share of unkind comments and taunts because of the way she looks.
But after her recent debut on the ramp at SA Fashion Week, this Wits University graduate who works for the National Prosecuting Authority as a prosecutor is enjoying a different type of attention.
Thando Hopa is one of about 4 000 black people with albinism in South Africa – and she’s delighted about the unexpected opportunity to show the positive and beautiful side of albinism to the fashion world.
‘She walked past me in Cresta shopping centre in Joburg and I just had to walk up and introduce my-self,’ says fashion designer Gert-Johan Coetzee of his new muse.
‘Thando has such presence and she’s so striking that she immediately made an impact on me.’ The de-signer says that his new model represents the opposite of colour. ‘I felt that combining her looks and personality with fashion was a very exciting prospect.’
Pain and suffering
As a little girl growing up in the south of Johannesburg, Thando knew she was different from her peers.
All she wanted to do was play with other kids in the sun, but she was always told to wear hats and sunscreen to protect her sensitive skin.
‘I hated that part of childhood,’ she admits.
‘I hated the feeling of that thick suncream my mom used to make me wear.’
Thando’s brother Sisa, 19, also has albinism, although her two sisters, Khanyi Nxumalo and Phindile Vilakazi, and her parents do not have the condition.
Albinism is caused by a recessive gene and is cha-racterised by a lack of pigment in the skin and hair.
Aside from sensitivity to sun and bright light, and occasional vision problems, people with albinism are as healthy as the rest of the population, although they face a greater than average risk of contracting skin cancer.
‘As a child, I struggled with my self-confidence because of the way I looked,’ Thando says.
‘Even the way I interacted with guys on a romantic level was very hard because I was battling with my self-image.’
Thando shares the pain of being taunted by youngsters who didn’t understand her condition.
‘Kids can be very mean,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of name-calling when I was younger.
Kids didn’t know words like albinism because they weren’t old enough or educated enough, so they resorted to using mean words like inkawu (monkey), and other hurtful insults that I didn’t understand, but I knew were offensive.’
For the most part, Thando suffered in silence and dealt with the pain on her own.
‘I don’t really know why I dealt with it that way, because I have a very solid support structure,’ she admits. ‘It was only at later stage when I allowed people into my world that I spoke about my feelings.’
When she was in Grade 7, her mother, filmmaker Seipati Hopa, helped her write a speech about albin-ism. ‘She went on and on trying to explain what pigmentation and melatonin was, and to be honest, I had no idea what all of that meant,’ Thando laughs.
‘But my mother and father, Jongisize Hopa, are wonderfully strong people and they made sure my brother and I felt secure about ourselves. It’s very important for people to know that they are cared for, and that someone has their back.’
Thando says that as she grew older, her environment and circumstances changed and by the time she was in Grade 12 at St Martin’s High School in Rosettenville, she felt truly comfortable in her skin.
‘I moved to varsity where people were more receptive and mature.
And when I started working, it got even better.’
But Thando still has to deal with the physical consequences of her condition. ‘I struggled with vision in school, because I’m short-sighted,’ she says.
‘Even now as an adult, my vision isn’t great. I do a lot of reading as a prosecutor, which sometimes gets too much for my eyes because they tire very quickly.’
Watching her strut her stuff in front of bright lights and cameras, it’s hard to believe that Thando used to view modelling as a career for shallow people.
Before being approached by Gert-Johan, she was dead set on being one of the best prosecutors in the country and making sure that justice was served.
She’s still pursuing that dream, but now she’s standing up for other people who look like her – on the ramp.
‘When I realised that Gert-Johan and I had the same vision about creating awareness for albin-ism, I was convinced that it was something I just had to do.’
Thando admits that when she first met Gert-Johan in the mall, she had no idea who he was.
‘I was on the way to movies with my boyfriend and walked passed this guy who I thought was very stylish and well-dressed,’ she recalls.
‘Two minutes later, he came up to me, gave me his card and asked if I was interested in modelling.’
Later, Thando googled him and was blown away when she realised just how big Gert-Johan was in the world of fashion.
But even that wasn’t enough to convince her to take to the ramp.
‘I wanted to know what it entailed first, because I wasn’t going to do anything that would make me feel compromised,’ she says.
‘I also wanted to find out what his ideas were and where exactly I fit into them.’
Although Thando has never modelled before, she’s confident that this is right up her alley.
‘Both careers give me a different kind of fulfilment,’ she says.
‘Modelling has boosted my confidence in ways that I couldn’t imagine.
This gig has helped me understand my body better and appreciate myself a lot more.
There’s also a much bigger purpose, because I haven’t seen anybody who looks like me on a ramp.
It was very important for me to do this, showing the positive and beautiful side of albinism.
Everyone on the ramp offers different representations of beauty.
I represent another kind of beauty. Also, Gert-Johan’s passion rubbed off on me and I’m so grateful to be a part of this.’
Gert-Johan, who has always been unconventional and has been known to break the rules, wasn’t perturbed by the fact that Thando is a first-timer.
‘The only difference is that with any non-professional model you have to rehearse a lot more. But on the upside, you get a freshness and enthusiasm that has a unique charm – and featuring a model who has her own story gives the collection an extra edge.’
The celebrity designer, who made his mark as Uyanda Mbuli’s former business partner, is full of praise when talking about his new discovery.
‘For me, Thando’s strength is in her bearing. There’s something shy, yet regal about the way she holds herself. She has a unique look, an unconventional beauty, and looks confident in it, which has the ability to draw eyes. This also applies to my collection – Gert-Johan Coetzee designs stand out, and Thando complements that really well.’
It’s quite clear that this is a match made in fashion heaven.
But where does that leave It girl Bonang Matheba, who has been Gert-Johan’s high profile muse for years?
‘I still work with Bonang and she’s very excited about her new “sibling”,’ he says.
‘If this were a fancy dinner, she would be my enduring muse; the delicious main course that the guests love and always come back for. Thando is the unexpected ingredient in the sauce that gives the dinner a surprise twist.’
Gert-Johan says his new collection is a celebration of the creative tension between
texture and colour, with flowing fabrics and laser-cut acrylic design details.
As to be expected, his new offering is anything but subtle – and Thando is only too happy to be seen in his arresting clothes.
This is only the beginning for Thando – a lot of work still needs to be done to make people more aware of albinism, and to eradicate the stigma.
She says, ‘I see a lot of young children with albinism, and they have bad skin.
It’s important for parents to understand that they have to take care of their kids’ skin. It’s is a huge contributing factor to confidence.
If they have good skin, they will have less to worry about.’
But for now, Thando needs to prepare herself for more photo shoots, which are bound to come her way.
With those looks and that killer personality, it’s only a matter of time before she hits the interna-tional catwalks.
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