04.12.2015

Level Up

Tusa Mamba sets his style agenda from his first floor store

Words: Serisha Letchmiah-Venter | Photography: Chisanga Mubanga

Dip ST. Store is not a place you’re going to wander into accidently. And if you’ve never been there before, follow the Google Maps directions and remember to look up.

Tusa Mamba is the owner of this "destination store" (his words), where you’ll find the cream of the international and South African streetwear crop. In just three years, the entrepreneur has secured some impressive accounts – bringing exclusive and first drops of premium and underground footwear and apparel to his store – from brands like Air Jordans, adidas’ Neighborhood collab, Losers, SOL-SOL, Young and Lazy and 2Bop.

Away from the hype of Braamfontein’s Quad of Cool, it is tucked away below Wits University, flanked by a road freight HQ and what seems to be the last remaining house on the fringe of Johannesburg’s CBD. The closest the location comes to cool is the Mr Fuzzy Slipperz mural on the corner.

Unlike many of the other specialty retail spots in Braam, Dip ST. is not going to seduce you with an impressive window display, mainly because you can’t see inside the windows from the pavement – and it’s not Tusa's style anyway. At the foot of the stairs is an electrical meter box covered in tags and stickers. It’s where you’ll find the mark of some heavy hitters, and no doubt those young bloods trying to build their own brands. A more fitting version of those business card walls at cheesy sports bars: been there, done that, and probably bought the t-shirt.

"It’s hard sometimes,” Tusa confesses, wondering whether he was too ahead of the curve for the South African retail environment. He admits considering moving closer to the action, but he’s sticking to his guns. A lot more work needs to go into pulling in new customers when you’re off the main drag, but he's making it happen.

While many of us spend our early twenties grappling with our quarter life crisis, Tusa was working part-time and studying towards a degree in mechanical engineering when he decided to open shop.

Appreciation for footwear was nurtured at home in small-town Mpumalanga. “My dad loved shoes, but he was a very formal guy. I remember Sundays would be the day he would polish all his shoes, and I remember, when ever I’d ask, he always had a story about each pair”.

It was love at first sight when his mother bought him his first pair of Nikes when he was in Grade 3. “They were the shoes for me. The shoes you wear on a super special occasion”.

A few years later, following family outings to the bigger cities close by, Tusa realized the standout effect a unique sneaker could bring. A pair of Cortez made him the coolest grade 6 at his civvies day, and since there’s been no looking back. His love for footwear evolved to include special edition apparel. Stores like Mooks were his Mecca.

The small town glory began to fade when he started university. “I’d get really pissed off because I’d buy a really cool hoodie, and I’d walk on campus and there’d be like ten people wearing it. And I got over it”.

I liken this to being a thrift shopper, who for years could find those special items he knew would never be stocked at department stores, only to one day walk into any one of the high street conglomerates and lay eyes on a hundred versions of his precious find.

“That’s when I started wondering, when people want something no-one else has where do they go?" And so the story goes…

Chances are, if you find a store or company offering a unique service or product it’s because the owners needed something they couldn’t find or get done. It’s about finding a solution to a personal dilemma. In this case it's about standing out in the crowd, having a love for that special something and building a community of like-minded people who are willing to spend those extra Rands to cop that exclusive combo.

Some tough decisions and even tougher loan negotiations later, the 23-year-old Tusa abandoned his studies and, in October 2013, opened Dip ST. Store.

The building used to house a microbrewery, and the space he occupies used to be an architect’s office. While on the hunt, he saw a 'For Sale' sign upon leaving a 1932 Tattoo studio upstairs. “It just clicked,” he says – this was the place.

Tusa knew what he wanted from the very beginning, “We’ll be a store that’s known to sell out, and we’ll get cool things selling out”. Big talk from a guy who courted Nike as a fresher three years ago, but only wanting what the other stores weren’t getting.

Dip ST.’s big break came in December 2013 when Riky Rick wore looks from the store in his Amantombazane music video. A few days’ later fans were streaming through the door looking for the rapper’s hook up.

Tusa recounts another similar story about how customers couldn’t get their head’s around 2Bop’s camo combo. But shortly after AKA wore it he was sold out in days.

This is the side of the business that he’s not happy about. He wants the heads and the hunters coming up those stairs, not the cats looking to catch a ride on the next trend wave.

Still, Tusa wants you to feel at home and it’s not meant to be an intimidating space. “There’s no need to feel pressure, even if you want to just have a chat with the gents, or have us beat you at FIFA”.

I can see him through the geometric windows that line the stairwell passage. He’s sending emails from behind the counter when I arrive. In the space of a few weeks they’ve dropped new Jordans and executed a Black Friday sale. We move over to another room off the main floor. There are two sets of shelves, one housing around 30 pairs of sneakers, the other a selection of 5- and 6-panel caps. A Dip ST. Store mural has been sprayed on the free wal; Dave the owner of the paint shop who shares the building is the artist. The space is clean, with the product the star. Yet, it doesn’t feel dressed to sell. It feels like it could be Tusa’s apartment, especially with the large couch in the middle of the room where many friendships have been gained and strained over that Xbox. I’m very relieved to hear the carpet is going soon.

Apparently some of the wildest deals have gone down in this room - even before the gear hits the shelves. YEEZYs going for iPhone 6s and others to make even the biggest spender blush!

Tusa consistently uses “we” when talking about the store. A team of 5 is behind the running of the business: from operations to content and running the online store. “Everyone who’s part of the team lives the culture and are active consumers of the type of product we have,” he explains. What's important is how they’re able to maintain their focus and appeal to a community of collectors, just like themselves.

Tusa’s insistence on being classified as a destination store starts making sense and sounds less like something he’s adopted from the 'it magazines'. He may not have held all the cards before but his relentless drive to not dilute his brand is working. Almost with confidence he says, “Being arrogant about the curation is a good thing".

Just three months ago, the store secured its dream account and is now an official Nike retailer – even declining to stock any of their fast-moving runners.

The best stuff is always on the top shelf, so if you want the premium no-bullshit goods, you’ll need to take the stairs.