Madiba masks
  • The famous Madiba shirt is no longer being made at Lontana Apparel in Cape Town. The factory has shifted to making only face masks.
  • While its shirts used to sell for a premium – well over R2,000 per shirt for some designs – it is now churning out masks at around R20 each for reusables.
  • In July alone it supplied 2.5 million masks.
  • With "special occasions" scarce, the factory does not foresee going back to the colourful shirts any time soon.
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You can still order a "Madiba Classic Blue" shirt from Presidential Group for R2,250 before shipping, and dress in the style that made Nelson Mandela a fashion icon during the height of his global fame.

But the Cape Town factory that was until recently responsible for those shirts, at a rate of between 1,000 and 1,500 per month, is no longer making them – and may not be making any more for a while.

Instead it is churning out non-medical face masks at a furious rate, peaking at 2.5 million in July, it says, for a total of five million delivered to date.

And unlike the shirts, the masks are not going at a premium. For a bulk order of 100 reusable stock masks you will pay around R20 each after tax. For bigger orders, the price drops even more, but if you want your masks branded, or to your own design, or in a special fabric, it is happy to talk about that too.

Madiba mask

While major store chains are cancelling orders, and apparel factories are facing permanent closure, the huge demand for masks has kept Lontana operational – and it has even employed a night shift.

Lontana was founded in 1985 and acquired by the Presidential Group, the custodians of the Madiba shirt, in 2017. It believes it is one of the oldest remaining shirt factories in the Western Cape, though it is not clear when it may go back to making shirts.

"Unfortunately, formal wear (our speciality) is under immense pressure as most people are staying home and not celebrating special occasions," says managing partner Dylan Rothschild. "Thus we predict that things will remain slow for the remainder of 2020."

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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