Yesterday, on my way to Soweto, I made a detour to Marshalltown in downtown Johannesburg to visit a friend of my Constituency Officer, Nomzekelo Monakali. Her friend, Andile Cele, owns a fashion store, she said, and wanted to talk to me about how to grow the business. I'm always keen to talk to budding entrepreneurs so I didn't take much persuading. What I found was a young man filled with ideas, perseverance, a determination to succeed and the makings of a fashion brand that, I believe, has the potential to make him rich and famous.
Why do I compare Andile to Ralph Lauren? Several reasons. For starters, he was wearing a Polo shirt which is why Ralph Lauren came to mind in the first place.
Lauren created his eponymous and Polo fashion brands in 1967 as a tie shop in Manhattan and extended them into clothing and accessories to become one of the world's fashion icons. He realised early on that classic design has a timeless appeal and if you attach it to an aspirational lifestyle you will have a constantly renewed market beating a path to your door. Look at the company website - the promotional message says it all: Modern and Classic. Every generation reinvents itself (modern) but retains elements of the past which are timeless (classic).
Andile's brand, Dope (an acronym for Designer Original Products Enterprise) and logo, two tennis rackets formed into a cross, combine an irreverence towards convention with a languid atmosphere of white flannels and tennis on a sunny afternoon. Dope is Afro-Prep morphed from New York to Joburg - see here and here for references to this embryonic fashion trend.
On entering Dope from the street, you walk up a short flight of wooden steps and turn right to face a wall decorated with old tennis rackets, some in ancient-looking presses (to keep them from warping when wet). This is a neat carry-through of the logo into the store decor showing a quirkiness of design which most visitors will surely remember and tell their friends about.
Andile (on the left in the photo above) met me with a relaxed smile and a warm hello and began telling me his story.
In year three of a degree in Sports Management in Durban he decided this was not his passion. Fashion was, so he headed for the UK (which he admires for its leading edge designers and retail entrepreneurs) and spent the next three years learning the trade at NEXT. Based in the Bristol store he worked in every department until he reckoned he knew enough to come back home and open his own store, which he did five years ago not far from where he is based now.
He has been here for three years now, on the corner of Commissioner and Loveday Streets just across the road from the Rand Club. He likes being in the oldest part of Joburg, where the mining houses set up shop - the famous Corner House, where many big mining deals were done at the turn of the 20th century is a block away, and the Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Anglo Gold Ashanti headquarters are nearby.
This part of town is getting a major makeover, with Andile's landlord Urban Ocean at the forefront. The company has bought up some of the city's signature buildings (including the Corner House) in the financial and mining district and is converting them to ultra-up-market apartment blocks, office and retail spaces. In doing so they are doing for property what Andile is trying to do with fashion, combining classic style and heritage with modern form and function.
A few metres from Dope Urban Ocean are creating a very innovative retail concept, involving pop-up shops which are allocated a small space for three months where they try and establish themselves before being found permanent premises in one of Urban Ocean's other buildings. They are creating an arcade-type space, a bit like the Small Street Mall, running from Commissioner St to Albertina Sisulu (formerly Market) St, which abuts the Library Gardens Rea Vaya bus terminus so is very busy during the week. Andile showed me around and I was very excited about the possibilities - it is a sort of retail business incubator. I made a point of finding time to meet the developers soon to learn more about their vision and plans.
Returning to his story, I asked him about some of the challenges he had to overcome during his journey to where he is today. Interestingly, he said crime was top of his list. Twice, he had his store cleared out by robbers which nearly bankrupted him and led the sheriff to his door to collect for his suppliers - debt he is still paying off. Now, he needs help to get to the next level, to expand his range and stock and to open up a coffee shop which he wants to add to the hang-out vibe he says his customers look for when coming to Dope.
Andile is a sharp marketer. He holds music gigs and other events at Dope from time to time to attract trend-setters and celebrities to help promote the store. He created a T-shirt especially to celebrate the "Still Thrill" of being in business for 5 years, which he sells alongside his other branded clothes, mostly his own but some imported.
Now, Andile needs a mentor and an investor who shares his vision for growth. He dreams of opening a downtown store in every major South African city. I think he can get there.
Andile is one of the new breed of young entrepreneurs who are tapping into South Africa's cultural zietgeist which is challenging accepted ways of doing things whilst combining the best of the old and the new. They identify a market niche and create a brand that speaks to that market. This country has extraordinary creativity, it just needs the confidence to make the big leap from side street to main street.
What is needed for people like Andile is an aggressive and ambitious class of angel investors and business incubators who can take them under their wing and nurture them into world class businesses. I sense this part of our entrepreneurial ecosystem is slowly emerging and it needs all the help it can get.
There is a place for the Department of Small Business Development in helping mobilise the funds for such investors as well as facilitating the creation of a market place were entrepreneurs and investors can come together. Andile does not know where to turn (he had not heard of the Small Enterprise Development Agency or the Small Enterprise Finance Agency, both government-run agencies which have failed to make an impression), hence his wanting to speak to me.
I will soon be connecting Andile to some business incubators and seeing what happens NEXT!