SA’s top designers talk business, tenacity and care
Words: Daniël Geldenhuys | Images: Getty
“I want my clothes to be honest,” says Selfi’s Celeste Arendse. “When I design, I intend to have my pieces as realistic as possible. I want people to wear it straight off the runway.” South Africa’s leading women designers are building their businesses around a profound awareness of and respect for their customers. There’s a special kind of magic that happens when women design for women. “It’s all about the wearability and subtleties of the fit,” says Amanda Laird Cherry. “Because I make clothes for women, I need to imagine their wants and needs in order to offer a winning collection,” adds Mantsho’s Palesa Mokubung.
“Running a fashion business is almost exactly like running a spaza shop,” says Marianne Fassler. “You need to have stock, you need to have clients, your costing has to be right and you cannot pay yourself unless you’ve settled all your expenses.” Her brand turns 40 this year, a feat that is testament to her mastering the nuances around that statement. Marianne firmly believes in the power of looking forward and “staying fresh and relevant”.
“The biggest lesson I have learned is to stay ready,” says Palesa. With all the moving parts of running a South African fashion brand, where even a “big” team is relatively small, that’s easier said than done. "There is this general impression that being a clothing designer is all about sketching and crafting garments,” says Amanda. “The reality is far different. It is 90% hard work and tenacity and 10% creativity. It involves strategising on all the moving parts of production and delivery. One has to pay attention to the business side of fabric buying, manufacturing and planning in order to actually deliver the garments that you create. Cash flow management and replenishment based on sales analysis is the next step.”
Celeste believes in keeping the business small, with overheads as low as possible, while marketing to a global consumer. “South Africa doesn’t have enough distribution points or consumers with disposable income for local brands to survive. It’s a must to market to a more global consumer and in the digital age it’s becoming so much easier.” She’s setting her sights on countries with similar climates and markets to SA, namely west coast USA and Australia.
And what part of being a fashion designer brings the most joy? All four women thrive on seeing their clothes worn and functioning to enrich their customers’ lives. It’s a form of caregiving that Palesa sums up as “attending to their needs, making them feel good and making sure they know how appreciated they are.”