"Soweto is coming along, it's coming into its own" along with the rest of South Africa, Lehlabi said. "We're an emerging identity. So, anything goes. It's a young and fresh identity."
She expresses her own identity in recycled materials and bits and pieces she finds at supermarkets and hardware stores. She dyes her clothing to washed out blues and grays that she says suggest Johannesburg's smog and "that bleached look that you sometimes get just before it rains."
Her collection for the Soweto Fashion Show includes sleeveless blouses made from cloth her local supermarkets sells for rags. It's a soft cotton that dyes beautifully, Lehlabi said.
She takes the brightly checked vinyl bags impoverished travelers load onto buses and trains across Africa, and cuts them into pieces to use as decorative trim. Other embellishments are hand-woven from hardware store rope.
"I'm inspired by the working class. Because I am working class," she said.
Each piece is painstakingly handmade.
But "it's very street. It's street couture," said Lehlabi, who showed her collection Thursday.
Lehlabi turns subtlety and thrift into elegance. Collen Monnakgotla, 32, another designer, represents the other extreme of township ingenuity. He dresses men in bright blocks of color, and his fabrics range from denim to Lycra.
Monnakgotla said he brings "something ghetto, something funky" to Soweto Fashion Week.