Designing activists in the world of fashion
Vanessa Pillay was made-to-measure for making clothes. The daughter of a tailor and a dressmaker, her pursuit of fashion etched an appropriate notch on her family tree of creatives. But during a career that has now spanned three decades, Pillay has revealed another intrinsic disposition that’s even more powerful than her call to design: a heart for women and children. And a drive to see their rights realised.
Pillay fell for the idea of becoming a designer while watching ballroom dancing on television as a young girl. The elegant gowns worn by the women fluttered through her imagination, but Pillay was not content with mere fantasy and started making dresses of her own. By the time she’d grown up, her urgency to see her thoughts come alive earned her an internship in Milan, sponsored by the Durban Fashion Fair. Returning with the experience needed to catapult her work onto the international stage, Pillay used her position to drive awareness campaigns for women’s and children’s rights beside her clothing collections.
“My aim is to use my skills as a fashion designer to give back to my community,” she says. “With every design I am reminded of the cause that I am fighting.” Pillay has been working to better the lives of children in Durban’s townships for as long as she has been involved in fashion. She achieved a career highlight in 2013 when she launched her solo brand and used the opportunity to encourage support for the Shepherd’s Keen Home for abandoned babies with HIV/AIDS. Pillay is also a UN activist for women’s rights. Alongside her demanding career, her devotion to the marginalised is an example of how a position of influence can be used to generate change.