A globally competing fashion house sets its sartorial roots in Cape Town

How the founders of the formidable fashion house, Budism Couture, are turning the idea of the fashion capital on its coiffured head from their South African atelier

By Ntokozo Maseko

Buildings, like man-made witnesses with windows for eyes, are the perfect keepers of history when they’re well made. In early 2022, a 240-year old Cape Town building at Heritage Square on Bree Street saw new owners quietly move in. With only five previous owners, it’s served as a wine storage facility, a general store, and a film advertising office. “Researching this unique building and going through the full heritage-approval process was incredibly interesting as it taught us so much about Cape Town’s history,” says Philipp Althof, one half of the dynamic duo behind Budism Couture, a fashion house which specialises in one-of-a-kind hand-embroidered gowns, daywear couture, and accessories.

The other half of the business, creative director Budi Adji, attaches a sacred meaning to the space, which comprises 750sqm over four levels. “For me, the number 88 signifies luck, and having an address of 88 Bree Street in 8000 Cape Town is an added bonus,” he says. Budi is among a handful of young designers who’ve bypassed the allure of mainstream fashion, choosing instead to keep the old vocation of true haute couture alive. And he does so from the southern tip of Africa – not Paris – a decision the two founders made based on Philipp’s attachment to Cape Town, where he grew up. This connection, as well as their keen observation of nuanced cultural aspects, were the nudging clues that this city could make an ideal site for a globally competing fashion house.

Philipp and Budi met in Singapore 23 years ago, when Philipp had just started his first job after obtaining a degree in business and finance. In the time preceding the 2014 founding of Budism Couture in Hong Kong, Budi completed his fashion studies at Central Saint Martins in London. “Our journey has taken us from Singapore to Shanghai, London, Zurich, Hong Kong, and now to Cape Town,” they recall. “People on this continent are incredibly creative – you find elements of design and creativity everywhere. When we first pitched the idea of moving to Cape Town to our Parisian ateliers, they all said we were crazy. We explained more, and they told us that if we don’t do it, someone else will,” Philipp recalls. Aside from being the unofficial ambassadors of their new home city and country, Budism Couture is foremost a bastion and refuge for those who appreciate the step-by-carefully-measuredstep dance that is haute couture. “I believe in the age-old tradition of savoir-faire and couture. It’s not just the final product that should impress, but also the painstaking artisanry and skills associated with real haute couture,” says Budi.

A Budism Couture creation can be made in a matter of weeks or take up to nine months. Clients from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and of course South Africa are offered optimum personalisation, the hallmark of luxury. One dress took more than 3 500 hours of embroidery to create, featuring thousands of miniature flowers with moving petals made from over 250 000 sequins. Another was made from the world’s lightest fabric; which Philipp quickly whisks off a shelf and throws in the air to demonstrate its remarkable lightness. While the sheer fabric slowly slices through the air with candyfloss softness, Budi explains, “This is the lightest woven fabric in the world,” and Philipp animatedly chimes in, “It’s digitally woven because no needle can weave this finely. It was originally developed for water filtration and can filter down to bacteria level. A dress made with this will weigh six grams in total… imagine that,” he says, visibly enthused by innovative originality.

The topic of Western presence descending on Africa with agendas to extract and export cannot be skirted around, and Philipp and Budi are clear on their intent. Having seen the handiwork of locals, they felt the same hands that bead intricate crafts can be taught to transfer their skill to the world of haute couture. They already travel around the world sourcing materials and maintain relationships with centuries-old factories that produce for France’s haute couture houses – Paris would have been an obvious choice as a base if ulterior motives existed. They also knew about the once-thriving textile industry in Cape Town, and in a bid to revive artisans exiled to obscurity by the industry’s demise, went to movie-like lengths that involve calling on a Bo-Kaap Imam and relying on an inquisitive car guard to trace legendary talent, in this case a seamstress with 50 years of experience. After losing her job at a textile company, she was making matric dance dresses from her home when the duo came knocking. Now one of the artisans at the ‘laboratory’, as the atelier is sometimes referred to, she spends her days in its quiet company. Five other local artisans all dressed in pristine white lab coats also call the space their professional home. Their talent pool expands further across the globe.

A garment can go from a sketch in Cape Town, to Indonesia for digital mapping of the fabric, on to Paris for embroidery work, then back to Cape Town for its refined finishing under the eye of Budi. This, he believes, is the money-no-object realm in which his clientele expect to live. “Some people might ask about the price tag. Why wait for four months for a dress? But these are clients who have shopped everything in terms of ready to wear. They progress onto the next level where whatever’s available for everyone else is not satisfactory, and want something no one else has. That’s where haute couture comes in. We work with our fabric suppliers to create one-off prints, and we source the impossible,” Budi elaborates.

After a day spent amongst the decadent detail that underpins the makings of a contemporary haute couture house, I’m struck by the considered pace at which the brand’s first 10 years have unfurled. In a time of Instagram immediacy – a phenomenon that can perceivably speed up public regard at breakneck pace – here is a brand building its home in the most unlikely but bourgeoning design hub on the African continent, sticking its flag on lesser travelled ground – that of one meticulous stitch, one spectacular gown, and one converted couture lover at a time.

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