LOOK: ‘I am the only designer in the world with a Braille Identification System’ - South African braille fashion designer Balini Naidoo-Engelbrecht

Balini Naidoo-Engelbrecht’s braille designs. Picture: Zaakirah Dalwai

Balini Naidoo-Engelbrecht’s braille designs. Picture: Zaakirah Dalwai

Published Jun 16, 2024


Making fashion accessible to the visually impaired is what 33-year-old fashion designer Balini Naidoo-Engelbrecht from Saldanha Bay, has achieved through her braille clothing range.

She describes her brand as unique, in that it addresses a social challenge among visually impaired people all over the world.

Her range came out at the end of 2017, when she completed her fashion design studies at the Durban University of Technology.

“During my first year, I came up with the idea in business studies, one of our subjects of clothing design,” she says.

“I had an uncle who was visually impaired, and he used to constantly tell me about his daily struggles when it came to clothing, and he always needed assistance, so that's what really inspired my range.”

She adds that, from a young age, she was exposed to people with different disabilities, and she always felt the need to help someone else before herself.

When she started working on her label, she faced many challenges, as there were no other designers doing anything similar.

“There was no research, so it was difficult to back up theory or data. People constantly asked me ”What is braille? Why on clothing? Why is this important? People could not understand my process. So that was very difficult for me.”

After doing intensive research, trying different methods and prototypes, she became the first person in the world to have braille printed into the actual garment.

“I am the only designer in the world with a Braille Identification System as well as the only fashion designer that’s adapting braille onto the clothing. However, after my concept came out on Google people were able to research my work and other designers adapted it to their fashion.”

The Braille Identification System embeds braille into graphic prints and slogans on clothing.

The print is visible to sighted people and carries important information for the visually impaired.

The print is visible to sighted people but carries important information for the visually impaired. Picture: Zaakirah Dalwai

This includes the size and colour of the garment, wash and care instructions, style description, and how they can pair the item with other colours and types of garments.

What other brands do is print the braille on labels and it usually just states the colour of the garment. These labels would have to be sewn onto the garment. Which would mean that the visually challenged person would still need assistance.

“Braille is normally printed in circles so I've pushed it and been more innovative. I've created graphic prints but I've made my braille into squares. Like other brands that have slogans printed across the front, mine says ‘Lost in Translation’.”

‘Lost in translation’ t-shirt. Picture: Zaakirah Dalwai

One of the obstacles she’s encountered is that the braille can only be printed on medium-weight fabric. It cannot be printed under fabrics like satin, sheer or delicate fabrics.

She adds that her garments’ target market isn’t only the visually impaired people, but anyone who wants to create awareness for visually impaired people.

“It’s a brand that creates awareness. It’s not only fashionable, but it also serves a cause. It’s inclusive fashion, a bold statement that’s put onto ready-to-wear garments - nothing over the top. Something that addresses a social challenge for the visually impaired.”

Over the years, Balini has received many awards for the work she has done.

In 2015, she found herself among the elite Top 10 designers acknowledged by the distinguished Society of Dyers and Colorists.

The following year, she continued to shine, earning a spot among the top 25 designers at the 2106 Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Awards.

In 2018, her ingenuity illuminated the design world as her creations took centre stage at the Design Indaba Emerging Creative Class of 2018.

The same year, she was honoured with a nomination as a Southern African Development Community Top 100 Innovator.

In 2019, she embraced a global role, serving as a Goalkeeper for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, impacting change on an international scale.

The year 2022 heralded fresh accomplishments as she received a nomination for the prestigious Tamil Business Award in the Woman in Business Category.

But perhaps the most significant highlight was on 31 May 2022 when she was presented with a Parliamentary Award.

This award celebrated her groundbreaking Braille Identification System, a testament to her unwavering dedication to recognizing and addressing the needs of individuals with sight impairments.

In 2024 Balini won the Woolworths Youth Maker competition and will be showcasing her new range in their selected stores.

Balini Naidoo-Engelbrecht. Picture: Zaakirah Dalwai

Her message to people is always, “What you do for yourself dies with you but what you do for others lasts a lifetime.”

She is a person who always goes the extra mile for everybody else and always makes sure that everybody else’s needs are met before hers.

“I design something with a purpose where form follows function and something that stands for a motive and not just another fashion statement that’s going to die when another trend comes along. I create something that’s bold and lasts a lifetime.”

IOL Lifestyle