Stoned Cherrie: Nkhensani Nkosi

Stoned Cherrie: Nkhensani Nkosi

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Recently returned from her first foray into New York Fashion Week, Nkhensani Nkosi sits at a restaurant outside her flagship Stoned Cherrie store in Rosebank and reflects on the rise and rise of the urban African brand she’s created. “When I first got the idea of starting Stoned Cherrie I was very inspired by Richard Branson. He’s such a creative activist and I just love that. He’s so brave and courageous that I thought ’Hell, why can’t I also do something really big and wild?’” she says.

It’s a question many people ask when they contemplate Branson’s meteoric success. But most are inspired only to dream. The people who breathe life into their vision and make it reality are few and far between. Even fewer are those who manage to create a successful, sustainable and profitable business out of it. And then there are those who manage to do both and in so doing come to redefine the way the world views something. Nkosi is among these rare few.

The ‘something really big and wild’ turned out to be a brand that not only showed the world a different view of Africa, but held a mirror up to Africa herself and changed how she viewed herself.

The Art Of Seeing

“I’m a big dreamer – anyone who knows me will tell you that,” says Nkosi. If you want to achieve anything big in business (or life for that matter), she believes you have to start with a big vision. “Sure you then have to take a step back and analyse what’s realistic, what’s viable, what’s practical, and adapt the picture from there. But for goodness sake start with a vision that’s big!” she says. It was on numerous trips into Africa as host of MNet’s Face of Africa television show that Nkosi got a first glimpse of the big picture vision that was to define her career. “What happened when I was travelling is that I really saw Africa.

“At the time every definition of it seemed to come from the outside. It was a Eurocentric, foreign aesthetic grounded in Big 5 tourism. What I saw and experienced couldn’t have been further removed from that tired, old, externally defined view of the continent.” It was a vision of an Africa that the rest of the world didn’t even know existed – a hip, young Africa bursting with urban energy and hungry to define itself. “It was so exciting, so energising – I just knew I had to try to bottle it!” she recalls.

Making It Happen

It’s little wonder that it was Africa’s energy that resonated with Nkosi. Energy literally pulsates off her. The air around her hums with it. Dreaming isn’t the only thing she does big – this is a woman who gets thing done.
In the ten years since she launched the Stoned Cherrie brand, she’s achieved her vision of presenting an authentically African aesthetic that captures the unique urban energy of the continent. Her shows are among the most anticipated in SA Fashion Week, and her clothes are sought after by discerning fashionistas, hip urban youth and celebrities alike. She helped pioneer the South African Designers collection in Woolworths stores, a first for that brand and a watershed in the local rag trade. Women praise Stoned Cherrie for the way it celebrates, rather than hides, the African physique and Nkosi has led where many others have followed. In short, she’s paved the way for a self-defined African fashion movement.

A Winning Formula

When she started, no one else was producing anything remotely like what was coming out of Stoned Cherrie, so Nkosi obviously had first mover advantage. But the landscape has changed drastically since then, which Nkosi herself says is “fantastic”. “It’s what we wanted and it means that Africans are defining their own identity,” she says.

But while the market floodgates might have opened to young South African designers with an African urban look, Stoned Cherrie has remained at the forefront of its sector. Why does the brand continue to resonate with people, particularly when it doesn’t follow conventional fashion trends? “I think it’s
precisely because we don’t necessarily follow trends,” says Nkosi, “We’re about more than just making pretty clothes. Part of my mission was to create a sense of pride about being South African – whatever that means to each individual, and I think that people really bought into the idea of having a brand that went a little deeper than the latest trend.”

Stoned Cherrie’s use of Bailey’s African Historical Archive prints on its garments was just one way of representing a South African pride. “Our history has such a blight on it and I wanted to use those images in a positive way, and attempt to make history part of popular culture and to remove some of the stigma attached to that era,” she says. It’s a taking back of history, if you will.

The Big Idea

Which brings us back to the ‘big vision’. Nkosi tends to begin with the end in mind and then work her way backwards.
“I would have to say that one of our success factors was that we started with a big idea. We’re by no means where we want to be globally, but our thinking has always been on a global level. I didn’t just want to start a clothing line – I wanted to change the way people perceive Africa,” she says.
While clothing forms an important cornerstone, Nkosi’s vision for Stoned Cherrie has always been as a lifestyle brand.
“I wanted to fill a gap and yes, it started with clothing because I’ve always been creatively inclined. But for me it’s always been about lifestyle – clothing was the first port of call because it allowed me to build a brand with credibility and it allows you to branch out into other categories.”
Those categories include accessories, homewear and eyewear. The last of these has enjoyed considerable success and is listed in over 450 optometrist stores in South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritius and Canada. Because of its price point, the range competes successfully with big-name global brands.

The Woolworths Deal

There are two ways to grow the lifestyle brand Nkosi had in mind. The first is to open a range of stores like the flagship Stoned Cherrie store in Rosebank and increase your footprint. She chose instead the second route – get retailers to stock your brand. Which is why the Woolworths deal came at the perfect time.

“We were looking for a large retailer to take the brand on and Woolworths actually approached us. I was sitting next to the MD of Woolworths at a Design Indaba dinner and was pulling his leg about their stores ripping off our designs. We got talking and they contacted us after conducting their own research into the brand and its potential,” Nkosi explains.

While the deal opened up a whole new market for Stoned Cherrie, allowing it to penetrate on a national level, Nkosi was not blind to the balancing act she’d have to strike. “People like boutique brands because they want one of ten outfits, not one of a thousand.

“So you need to be very careful about how you position the brand when you go into a big retailer,” she explains. She and her team conducted extensive research into how big-name brands like Ralph Lauren still manage to maintain their brand exclusivity while accessing lower price points and markets. “You come up with a diffusion line – all the big brands do it,” she says. She describes the Woolworths experience as providing her with some of her most important business lessons. “When you operate on your own, you can tend to be fairly lax about some things.

“But you quickly learn that in that kind of large retail environment, there are some very serious consequences if certain things don’t happen by certain dates. Commercial retail is something very few designers ever get the opportunity to be exposed to and it was such a great experience for me as a businessperson. It brought a rigour and discipline to what we do that I believe will always stand us in good stead,” she explains.

Sticking To Her Knitting

Why Nkosi didn’t choose to expand beyond one store is cause for some speculation, but on talking to her it’s quickly made clear that the decision was thoroughly thought-through and grounded in sound business sense.
“Think about it – if you have five stores, all of a sudden you’re a retailer. On top of that you have to design the clothes and you have to manufacture them,” she explains. Those are three related but very different businesses and after much soul-searching and reflection on what Stoned Cherrie “was really about”, Nkosi decided, “I didn’t want to be a retailer.”
For similar reasons she also decided she didn’t want to be a manufacturer and began outsourcing this part of the business a couple of years ago. “The penny dropped for me when someone said to me, ‘When you manufacture internally you never know what the real cost is. But when you outsource you pay the cost and if someone undercharges you it’s their problem.’

“When you’re a designer busy making clothes in a factory there are always situations where you change things as you go. You alter designs. You shift the direction of a garment. All of these things cost time, resources and money, which you can never really quantify. I came to understand that you really have to understand manufacturing to do it profitably.”

Looking To The Future

The decision to partner with retailers has borne more abundant fruit than Nkosi could have imagined. This year Stoned Cherrie will not only be listed in 48 Foschini stores – it will have its own store-within-a-store that will allow the brand full scope to merchandise its range of accessories, taking it one step closer to its creator’s lifestyle brand vision.

The move necessitated the end of the brand’s relationship with Woolworths, a decision that Nkosi describes as ‘the hardest I’ve ever had to make’. “But I believe it’s the right one – we embark on a new journey towards being a top-to-toe brand,” she says.

Towards the end of 2009, Nkosi attended a leadership conference in Boston, USA. It was an experience that resonated with her determination to stick to Stoned Cherrie’s core business. “We were asked to do an exercise where we had to distil our mission into a single sentence. It’s something all the business books and gurus tell you to do but few people manage it,” she relates. “I found it quite hard at first but I think that the words I eventually settled on encapsulates Stoned Cherrie’s mission. It’s to inspire.”

Stoned Cherrie Milestones

  • 1999 Stoned Cherrie is registered as a business after Nkhensani Nkosi has a vision of capturing the unique urban African aesthetic
  • 2000 The Stoned Cherrie brand is launched and the Rosebank flagship store opened
  • 2004 Stoned Cherrie signs a licensing deal with Woolworths to stock a line of garments as part of its South African Designers range
  • 2005 Stoned Cherrie’s eyewear range is launched
  • 2005 The manufacturing operation is outsourced to a former employee
  • 2009 Nkosi attends New York Fashion Week
  • 2010 48 Stoned Cherrie stores-within-a-store are scheduled to be rolled out at Foschini nationwide

Nkhensani Nkosi on challenges, lessons and leaning on others

  • There were so many big things to overcome early on, but the challenges relating to the specifics of the fashion industry weren’t the most difficult. You can learn about buying cycles and manufacturers. What was really difficult was knowing how to build a business and make it profitable and sustainable.
  • I had to work it out along the way. I read voraciously and I’ve always had a really strong network of mentors around me. They included family, friends, business associates and the support of organisations like Endeavor. They have been a fantastic support to me. I really believe that help is out there if you just look for it and ask for it.
  • I think the biggest lesson I learnt was from being exposed to the Woolworths retail experience. If I had a child who wanted to get into this industry I would absolutely insist that they work in a department store environment as a planner, merchandiser, buyer, and then at an international retailer. And I would insist that they do it for years.
  • For a retailer to back your brand and want it in their stores, you’ve got to be offering them access to a market they are interested in. And you’ll never know what that is until you’ve been in their shoes.
Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.