“My mother said, ‘if you walk into any room carrying your skin colour, then you will be treated as that.’ But once I came here, I couldn’t get away from, and I didn’t want to get away from the fact that I was different. I saw it as an opportunity, something I now refer to as ‘the power of the anomaly’.”
As we sat in a small, bare-brick café on Arab Street, Mr Q recounted the same words he had said to me on the day we first met, which was an anomaly in itself.
On a late afternoon in late January, I was walking through an art fair in the colossal convention centre beneath the Marina Bay Sands, the most famous icon of Singapore’s skyline. The term ‘art fair’ is quite an understatement, because Art Stage was a contemporary art showcase so large that had I barely made a dent after four hours. Slightly lost and wandering between two metre high sculptures of who-knows-what, I turned the corner and immediately saw him.
I thought our meeting was a fantastic coincidence, but in retrospect I think it was completely inevitable. Not only were we the only black people in a myriad Asian faces, but we are both very tall (or rather one of us is very tall and the other was wearing heels), which made it almost impossible not to notice each other. Dressed in finely tailored clothes and sporting a wide-brimmed panama hat, Mr Q looked like he belonged more so than anyone else, a manner I have come to realise that he exudes in every situation.
To most people, Mr Q is an enigma. The combination of his sartorial flair, his subtle British cadences, and his unmistakably Ndebele name and appearance, is comforting to me but confounding to others. Despite being one of the few people in Singapore who can actually pronounce his full name, I find myself compelled to exclusively address him as ‘Mr Q.’ This is partly out of traditional respect, for although he is my friend, he is also my senior. However, it is mostly because anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting him can attest to the fact that the name is so quintessential to him.
Living in Singapore has cultivated an overwhelming excitement in me every time I spot another black person, let alone someone from the same country. I’d like to think that when we first met I contained my excitement, that I was cool and nonchalant, but I’m sure Mr Q would say otherwise. Sitting across from him in the café six months after our first meeting, I was enthralled as he recounted the story of his upbringing.
Nqabeni Butholezwe Msimanga was born in Zimbabwe, but emigrated to England at the age of thirteen, resulting in the melodic ‘British-ish’ accent familiar to us Zimbabwean émigrés. In his earlier years, he was raised by his grandfather, a man whose sensibilities were shaped by British ideals in colonial Rhodesia. “My grandfather is the reason I became obsessed with tailoring. As a kid, I would see him in the most refined clothing,” he mused as he instinctively adjusted his oat-coloured hat.
“My grandfather had nine boys and two girls. I was surrounded by men my whole life, so I had towering figures to aspire to.” One such figure was his father, a man he describes fondly as a cool and calm character who taught him how to run a household. With his parents separated, he lived with his father throughout his teenage years in their “bachelor’s pad.” Mr Q laughed easily as he recalled their relationship. “I was very obedient actually. You should put this down - he should thank me for not being a rebellious teenager. The worst I ever did was break curfew by 45 minutes…” He paused to reflect, in between a sip of coffee. “From him, I learned how to be a decent human being.”
In contrast to his cool but firm father, Mr Q described his mother as a creative but strict disciplinarian with whom he spent his summer holidays as a teen. “My mother was a fierce figure. She doesn’t suffer foolish behaviour very easily. I had this fear of her growing up and it wasn’t until I was 19 that I began to understand her.” In between weekend shifts in his early adulthood, his mother would drive him to car boot sales in the West Sussex countryside foraging for vintage furniture, which she soon taught herself to reupholster. “The logo on my current business card is a pheasant. That was an homage to her, because on our drives through the countryside we would see pheasants everywhere.”
Mr Q slid his business card across the table for me to see the intricately drawn bird. We were only a few blocks down from his loft-office, in which he runs The Prefecture, a bespoke menswear label with an extremely loyal and enthusiastic customer base. The name was inspired by his time as a Prefect in secondary school, and epitomises his crisp signature style.
Created by Mr Q in 2014, the label is what I refer to as his “other child.” He laughed upon hearing this, as his actual child is a beautiful newborn girl named Khaya Niva Qinisa. Her name, meaning ‘house of light and strength’ in Ndebele and Sanskrit, draws on the background of both parents - Mr Q’s Zimbabwean roots and his wife’s origins in Kerala, India. Much like Mr Q, she moved to England at a young age, where they met many years later in school. “We had come up with the name Khaya (meaning ‘home’) years ago because we both had a very strange but strong understanding of what a home is. It meant that wherever we went in the world, she would know that her home is in her heart.”
Throughout the conversation, I felt an emphasis on the idea of being rooted. “If you know where you’re coming from, then you know where you’re going,” he repeated, and so I asked him where he was going. To this he replied, “as you know, in our culture a name is given to you as an aspiration so that you grow into it. My first name, Nqabeni means ‘the pinnacle of the mountain’ and Lord knows I’m far too ambitious for my own sensibilities.” He then paused for a pensive moment before locking eyes with me and saying with a grin, “so, watch out Tom Ford.”
Photos by Gabriel Lim.
N.B. "Mr Q" Msimanga
Lord of the Manor