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A Look At The Business Side of Fashion

Beneath its fabulous surface, the business of fashion in South Africa is a challenging one with prevalent misconceptions and obstacles. This means that of the many young fashion labels and retail boutiques that launch, many fail. Despite this however, there are also inspiring success stories.

South African Fashion Week director and industry doyenne, Lucilla Booyzen, says that the biggest misconception young designers have when launching a business is that it is easy. She attributes this to a lack of fashion retail savvy, which pertains not only to running a business, but to pricing garments correctly, dealing with wholesale and conceptualising a salable collection. Booyzen says that education is a factor affecting the success ratio of young designers’ businesses. “This is one of the most important pillars,” she says, “for most designers their education stops the moment they finish their course [when in fact] it is only then when it really begins.”

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Fashion entrepreneur and owner of EGALITY, Felicity Spies, reiterates this concern, noting that in South Africa there are no real ‘fashion houses’ where young designers can apprentice and gain real fashion-world experience. Fashion legend Marianne Fassler is the only real exception to this, having over the years nurtured and mentored the talents of Anmari Honiball, Joel Janse Van Vuuren, Lezanne Villiers, and Laduma from MaXhosa. Spies says that with this crucial rung missing from the local industry, designers are forced to launch their own brands without most of the necessary knowledge or experience. This, she says, is indicative of a nascent local fashion industry. “All the different moving parts are still out of balance and are not working seamlessly together”, she explains. “This makes it a seriously challenging career to pursue as you have to be an industry builder as well as a great designer, retailer, marketer, manufacturer etc.”

Another major challenge that Booyzen, Spies, and many others in the industry cite is the limited availability of quality fabrics and skilled CMTs. The harsh reality is that there are too few quality fabrics manufactured and available locally. This means that designers either have to work with what they can get their hands on, or import their own rolls of fabrics. Within this is a further dilemma: without quality fabrics designers have a hard time producing unique collections that boutiques will stock, and without being able to generate enough scale for their label through sales, designers will struggle to create the capital necessary to start importing custom fabrics and manufacturing technology.

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“The challenge with producing garments locally means far less profit margins which means the garments are not on par with pricing of what one would pay in a mass retail store, who produce in Asia for example”, says Khaya Sibiya of Johannesburg brand Punk & Ivy. Coupled with this are local consumer attitudes, buying trends and perceptions. “It is still incredibly hard to convince the South African target market to buy into local brands,” says Marea Lewis, one of the founding partners of bespoke menswear label Augustine. “I think this stems from clients believing that locally produced garments are not as well made as bigger international brands,” she adds. Winning clients’ trust requires time and experience. “If you produce a quality garment the first time around they will always come back for another”, she explains. “I do find that South Africans are willing to pay for quality if they trust the brand.” Eleni Labrou, who founded AKEDO Online (which has just rebranded as A1 Store) echoes this, stating that for local consumers, “price needs to equal the value of the item.”

Part and parcel of the allure of fashion is the experience it promises. The retail experience is central to this, creating the touch point for consumers between the idea of a garment and the reality of wearing it. “Fashion is a luxury essentially”, Lewis reminds us. This sentiment is what she tailored her label’s brand ethos around. “When people walk through the doors of Augustine we want them to not only experience the garment as a luxury but the entire process as a whole”. This translates into the atelier atmosphere of the space, and custom fitting, measuring and tailoring for each client. Spies, in turn, likens her store to a stage. She works with a film set designer to change the windows and tell a story with their displays. “We want EGALITY to be an oasis in the city where you can relax and enjoy yourself”, she says. She also stresses the importance of location, saying that your location “has to work for you; if you find yourself working for a location, trying to drag people there, you need to move”. For Labrou, this meant moving from an online store to a physical space, rebranding AKEDO Online as A1 Store. She explains that while the startup funds required for an online store are much less than that of a physical space, the maintenance and marketing necessary to ensure the store is constantly visible to the right consumers online requires a considerable amount of capital. “Basically”, Labrou says, “online retail is not an easy way to make a quick buck.”

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Punk & Ivy’s approach to the retail experience bypasses the question of location altogether with their ‘Style Motique’, which takes the brand directly to peoples’ homes, offices, markets and other social spaces. “Gone are the days of cluttered shopping rails, mass-produced attires and poor service”, says Sibiya. Instead, the Style Motique provides a custom mobile shopping experience in the form of a specially renovated campervan. In addition, Sibiya explains that the brand is able to capitalise off the novelty of the Style Motique in various other ways: “We collaborate with brands and ensure where possible to use the Motique in partnership with the deals we secure, be it activations, wardrobe rooms for TV commercials, exhibitions, etc. 

The relationship between designer and boutique is central to the business of fashion. Spies, who works closely with the designers she stocks to develop marketable ranges, says that many of them cannot find another store that is right for their brand. “As a result there is a weaker demand for their product,” she explains, “causing the entire process to lose momentum.” This situation comprises a core area of South African Fashion Week’s strategy to build a robust fashion industry. The SAFW X Edgars Designer Capsule Collections collaboration provides a bridge for selected designers to enter into the mass retail space. This has the benefit, Booyzen says, of allowing designers “the opportunity to jointly develop affordably priced ranges, amplified brand visibility and additional revenue streams. Designers also benefit from mentorship and exposure to all aspects of the value chain without relinquishing responsibility for garment selection, as well as the aesthetic of their respective designer rails.”

While there are many hurdles facing fashion designers and entrepreneurs, there is also opportunity for those who have the experience to know where to look. Identifying a unique niche in the local fashion landscape takes time and some trial and error, but perseverance, dedication, and above all, hard work, do pay off in the end.

Follow this Glenfiddich series for more articles and interviews with 7 forward thinkers in art and culture to discuss their careers and what they predict for the future of their industries.

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