On May 28 this year, Malawians witnessed the first-ever lingerie fashion show event, courtesy of the Boudoir by Doll Mabel fashion show.
Female models of all shapes and sizes strutted down the runaway, at the magnificent Bingu International Convention Centre (Bicc) in Lilongwe, while wearing defiant, outlandish and well-cut sexy lingerie gear.
Being the first of its kind, the event drew different reactions, with some patrons condemning it as lewd show while others felt it represented a celebration of body positivity.
In the aftermath of the inaugural fashion event, fashion enthusiasts stood firmly by curator of the event, model-cum-fashion designer Mabel Banda-Khonje, who owns the Boudoir by Doll Mabel lingerie line.
Jacqueline Dzuwa wrote: “Mabel is exposing an industry that is still considered taboo by those who want to…A sexy lingerie empowers you, it gives you wings and it takes you to places you can only dream of. It sets you apart. It is what I call a woman’s secret treasure.”
Fashion enthusiast Fawzia Osman said it is important for people to move with the changing fashion trends.
“Lingerie gives women confidence. It is more than a clothing as it helps women define themselves as beautiful, feminine, strong and elegant,” she said.
Another passionate fashion head Wilson Khembo also poured admiration for the venture: “I admire people who think outside the box and venture into uncharted waters. The lingerie business is a multi-million dollar industry, and it keeps growing. Let’s give Mabel the respect she deserves.”
But such challenges are what the young entrepreneur, and mother of two, says have laced her life as she pushes for her goals in a male-dominated world. She says being female and peddling a fashion dream has not been an easy ride.
Says Khonje: “Doing business in this environment, it means you have to deal with egotistic men who like to sexualise women, and a society which is also still very cultural, and the lingerie business is perceived as prostitution.”
She says the reaction that the event received shows that Malawi has a long way to go to embrace change, adding that lingerie shows have been happening around the world for decades.
“It is a celebration of women and their bodies. It is a way of encouraging women to be comfortable in their bodies no matter the sizes. We have been stereotyped for too long and I feel, as women, we need to take charge and control of how we are perceived and treated,” she says.
The fashion designer adds that those who hold negative thoughts about the event are hypocrites who are deliberately trying to avoid some crucial parts of the Malawi heritage, and even cultural beliefs.
“Before we were westernised, our way of dressing was beads and underwear. Even now, the Ngoni cultural attire for women is bare breasts and beads on the waist. And when you look at cultural events such as Mulhako wa Alhomwe, the attire completely exposes a woman’s body.
“How is that different from what I am doing? Is it okay to expose a woman in the name of culture, and not expose her in the name of fashion?” she wondered.
Born in Zimbabwe to a Zimbabwean mother and a Malawian father, Mabel says her childhood was normal and her parents were very religious. She attended her junior primary school in Zimbabwe, and later in Malawi.
She says: “I attended Alfred Beit International School in Zimbabwe then later on Lilongwe Private School here in Malawi. I then went to Dedza Islamic School.”
After her secondary school, Khonje went to Varsity College in South Africa where she studied accounting. She later enrolled at University of Wales where she obtained an associate degree in public relations and communications.
But all these professional qualifications made little appeal to her to carve out a career. As she grew up, the influence of her mother, who was a fashion designer, was too strong to be ignored.
“She was a fashion designer, so she started enrolling me in fashion shows since I was five to showcase her designs. I grew into it and slowly it became my life,” she says with a big glow on her face.
By the age of 14, Khonje already had her footprints in the pageantry world when she was crowned Miss Environment for Lilongwe, Miss Lilongwe and Miss Schools Malawi.
She adds: “I participated in the Miss Malawi contest when I was 18, but I didn’t win anything. I participated again in 2004 and I was crowned the 2nd Princess.”
That experience allowed her to later on join the Miss Malawi organising team where she served for five years before she quit to pursue her solo venture—a fashion shop called Vogue which. unfortunately, didn’t pick.
Migration to Netherlands
Together with her family, Khonje moved to Amsterdam, Holland where she signed with a modelling agency. After she settled down, the model launched a lipstick line called Doll Mabel Lipstick.
“Sadly, the lipstick line wasn’t much of a success and I continued with my modelling career,” she says.
Determination seems to define her journey. In September 2020, Khonje became the first black woman to own a lingerie line when she launched her Doll by Doll Mabel lingerie brand. The fashion line was launched both in Amsterdam and Malawi, at separate events.
She says: “It was an instant success. The support and response was amazing. We opened an online shop and started selling worldwide. It did very well that I decided to come home so that I can share it with my people.”
Source of Inspiration
Khonje believes the road she has travelled can only serve as an inspiration, especially to her fellow women and young girls. She urges all women who have dreams never to give up, but to keep pushing.
She says: “For me, it is not about business. It is a lifestyle. I want to become a global business mogul. It has not been an easy road, though. From the Miss Malawi days 18 years ago, I have had ups and downs in terms of business but I have grown through the experience. This is to encourage women to never give up.”