A Tailor’s Story – 40 years in Bez Valley and counting

I first interviewed Mr. Subhas Moti, owner of Bez Valley Tailors, more than ten years ago when I lived in the area. I wrote about him on my blog, Rift Valley Reflections: Anything from a Brassiere to a Tent.

At the time, he said he would be there for at least another ten years. I contacted him to find out how he and the business are doing.

Moti took over Bez Valley Tailors at the corner of Albertina Sisulu Road and 7th Street, Bez Valley, from his father-in-law, Mr. Chitta Lalloo Parbhoo, when he retired in 1981.  The shop started out at 15 Broadway (now Albertina Sisulu Road) and moved to the current location in 1962, almost 50 years ago.

The son of a tailor, Mr. Moti was born in Durban in 1947.  His father’s business was in Grey Street, which was a ‘hub of Indian businesses’ in the 1950s.

The Indian market in Victoria Street, Durban, 1950

From an early age, Mr. Moti would go to his father’s shop after school. At the age of nine, he shortened his first pair of trousers, made his first buttonhole, and tacked his first button.  When he was 11 his father died suddenly. He and his five siblings were catapulted into adulthood, the three boys into careers as tailors.

Life was tough but Mr. Moti is inclined to focus on the positive. “Between then and the time I came to this business, I frequented workshops and sweatshops and tailor shops. It was an excellent learning ground”.

He met his wife on a visit to Johannesburg. “I had family in Johannesburg so I came here from time to time.  In those days when you crossed provincial borders, you had to go to Home Affairs and get a permit.  

Mr. Moti with his wife and in-laws

On the one trip, I met my wife and we got married”. The couple lived in Durban for a while before moving to Lenasia.  Taking over his father-in-law’s business in July 1981 allowed him to generate more income, though not without hard work and sacrifice.  “Those were long days. I was working 12 or 14 hours a day…”

The horrendous journey to and from Lenasia in peak hour traffic and the long hours have also taken their toll on Moti’s health.

Traffic and taxi rank in Lenasia

For me to get to the shop at seven o’clock in the morning, I have to get up five.  I have a 100 km ride each day. 

Moti kept his business in Bez Valley going while other tailors gradually disappeared from the area.

His business expanded. He took on one assistant and then another.

Covid’s devasting consequences

With Covid, everything went downhill, Moti says. “There was nothing happening and we had to shed the staff.” To make matters worse, Moti and his two assistants got the virus.

We had to close the shop because all three of us had Covid

Tragically, Jack Nkgapele, who worked in the shop for 34 years passed away.

Jack Nkgapele

“I am still waiting for him to come back to his machine, but he is never going to come back. He was 20 years my junior when he passed away. When he came to me he was 19 or 20 and he came from trade school.  I paid him well; the hours were good, and along the way, I gave him one of my old vehicles.  He fitted into my attire – my clothes don’t get old.  I taught him how to put on a tie, how to speak to people, etcetera, and he became part of the institution.

“I have another young man. He has been with me a good 22 years, so he and I are trying to hold the fort and it is not upright at the moment.

“I still get sentimental when I realise that the poor guy has passed away, but that is the reality of life: You will die.  Maybe I was expecting too much.

“They used to say: “What if something happens to you; what happens to us?”  And he was the guy who went before me. I have to put things into perspective so that nobody gets disappointed along the way.  I didn’t want to talk to you sooner because I was going through the stress and depression of having lost the guy. I thought we were cushioned.”

Zamwana Mmutlanyane and Mr Moti

Everything was working like clockwork. And now suddenly you haven’t hit a glitch, you have hit a brick wall. To replace him is not easy. We are in a sort of a slow mode at the moment.  What I can’t handle, I bring home, and I am not doing justice to my life. At 74, I don’t need to bring work home, but the show goes on.

Mr Subhas Moti

“It is almost impossible to find a replacement with the patience and the right attitude,” Moti says. “What I learned in my sixty-odd years in the trade can’t be taught overnight.  The volume of people coming to my shop has dropped but those that do come don’t come with itsy bitsy things, they come in with valuable items, expensive items that need TLC.  Right now I am in the middle of a job, my iron is on and I am working from home today because it is a Saturday. “

Moti takes pride in his work and values his contribution. ‘I believe anybody who works with his hands has to make a living.  He is taking the trouble so he must also get a slice of the cake. I don’t want the whole cake…I will never be rich but I can make a decent living.

Since the downward trend with Covid, Bez Valley Tailors has been doing work for a business at Bedford Centre. “Every week there is something or the other coming from their business; something they have sold or someone who is making an inquiry and wants it done.  They burnt their fingers because their diagnosis was not correct and I was not willing to do the job for free. So I gave them a whole lot of business cards and I told them to hand out my card if they can’t do the diagnosis.”

“And if somebody says to me: you are too expensive you will price yourself out to the market, I tell the guy, Bru, I have been here 40 years!”

RELATIONSHIPS WITH CUSTOMERS ARE CENTRAL

‘In my line of work I have people who have things to talk about, anything from the money market to weddings and social events and tragedies. So you hear of Johannesburg, you hear of the people of Johannesburg. And it is a vibrant city.  I’m a peoples person…Eventually, the customer becomes your friend.

“My philosophy in the shop is that the garment should be waiting for the customer; the customer ought not to be waiting for his garment. And that philosophy has worked over the years. Sometimes you have to look the other way and not charge your customer for the sake of the goodwill of your business,” says Moti. 

Customers are from all walks of life. “You can’t put a finger on who the customers are…very poor, very rich. The poor one will say, ‘Please boss, I don’t have another trouser, give me a trouser so that I can wash the one I am wearing… And then I get the guy who comes here in a Maserati and I do a fitting for him and he gives me his card and says, ‘When it is ready, please call the office, somebody will come and fetch it”. 

THE CHANGING FACE OF BEZ VALLEY

People say: What are you doing in Bez Valley. They say: Go to Bedford Centre; go to Eastgate.  They have no idea about what I have to do before I pay the rent. 

 

Mr Subhas Moti

“The people who grew up here and got married and had children are still here. Their children have moved away but they have hung around.  Then there’s the influx of the foreigner. The foreigner comes, the foreigner goes. And I must tell you, with all due respect, these people show me respect because of my age and my attitude.  We haven’t had an issue in many years. 

“There are people who tell me they have an issue coming to me in Bez Valley. There’s a lady who comes with an open-top Porsche or  Mercedes open-top – that is her weekend vehicle. “But I’m scared,” she says. So I say, alright, the day you want to come to the shop, you will phone me….and then I meet you outside and bring you into the shop personally. And then when the work is done, I take the parcel outside to her. She doesn’t have to leave her vehicle.

“We have to go with the flow and we have to get on with life.  Bez Valley is still a lovely place. Come November, the Jacaranda trees are blooming.  It is a beautiful place. I have spent more of my life in Bez Valley than anywhere I lived growing up, so for me, it’s of sentimental value. 

NOTEWORTHY CUSTOMERS AND CHALLENGING ASSIGNMENTS

Bez Valley Tailors has had some unusual customers over the years.

They include a local magician. The relationship led to a massive undertaking to produce items of clothing for 10-12 Reach for a Dream ‘happiness givers’. Outfits consisted of trousers, waistcoats and T-shirts with lots of pockets. “A pocket is a tailor’s nightmare”, Mr. Moti says. 

Although business has always been uncertain from one day to the next, before Covid struck, the atmosphere in the shop was vibrant and collaborative.

“Ours is a team effort but I am always in the middle of every single job,” Moti said.  “Nobody does marking and cutting except me and I give the customer the fitting so I know what I have to do.

“You get a person who is slender on the waist but big on the seat, and you may get a man who has a paunch and a very small behind.  It is all about measurements and you have to be on top of your trade otherwise they bring it back and you have to redo the job at no cost”.

Durban in the 1950s - large Indian population, Indian businesses, tailors, Mr Moti's childhoood
Mr Moti

Assignments may be “anything from a brassiere to a tent,” Moti says. “Now the brassiere that would come to us is not an ordinary brassiere. It comes from the specialists and it is an awkward size. For instance, one that came to us was a 32 triple H! We provide the necessary workmanship”.

An ‘operation’ with a tent involved sewing zips onto the windows of the tent so they wouldn’t flap in the rain.  A machine was moved onto the pavement to complete the job because the tent was too big for the shop.

THE FUTURE

“Next month I turn 75 and the guys ask: “When are you  going to throw in the towel?” And I tell the guy, Bru, what would I do at home? Wait to die?  No, life is for living…

“Since you first interviewed me in 2011, I have had a pacemaker, I have had a stent put in, I have had a hernia repair, I have had cataracts and golly, man, I am heavy on maintenance.  But I played tennis this morning….” 

For more articles by Melody Emmett click here

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

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