When Lesego Malatsi started making clothes, he didn’t think beyond being able to support himself. Today, the once unemployed fashion school graduate has a thriving business, a shop in Soweto’s Maponya Mall and a growing market in the UK. He’s also a Richard Branson School of Entrepreneurship graduate and the only South African designer to have showcased his work in the 2011 London Fashion Week’s ‘Fashion’s Finest Renaissance’ event, an experience he describes as “the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.”
Getting off the ground
It’s a story, like so many others, with humble beginnings and starts with a sewing project in the streets of Soweto. “My mother invested my deceased father’s pension payout in my fashion school
education and I was the first person in my family to study beyond school. So when I graduated and couldn’t find a job, I knew I’d exhausted the family’s income and would have to make a plan,” says Malatsi.
With nothing other than ideas for beautiful garments, Malatsi approached a group of women in a Soweto sewing project. “I realised I’d have to use what I had, which was my training and my ideas. They had equipment that I needed so I proposed a barter deal with them. They would let me use their equipment and in return I’d give them professional clothing patterns,” he explains. This still left the problem of purchasing fabric, but Malatsi managed to convince his first client to pay a deposit to cover these costs.
That deposit was Malatsi’s first and only start-up capital. “Once that first garment was made I made a small profit and, as word spread in the community orders slowly started to trickle in, and I could use the money I made to buy more fabric and make more garments,” he explains.
It’s business in its simplest but possibly most elegant form: make a small profit off an initial sale, plough it back into the business and use it to increase production and make more profit.
Defining a unique style
Over time, Malatsi became known in his neighbourhood as the go-to-guy for African fashion for formal occasions. From initially making only bespoke garments, he slowly developed commercial ranges based on his more successful items.
He’s worked hard at developing his own African-inspired style. “I deliberately didn’t reference European fashion magazines. I wanted to create an Afro-centric look that appeals to any race or colour, but that still has an international flavour,” he explains. Initially he was known for his ‘traditional clothing’ but that has evolved and a unique style has emerged over time into ethnic-inspired and finally the Afro-centric style he has today.
Standing out – and serendipity
This signature style is undoubtedly one of his key success factors and it’s what made a particular tourist from Cambridge notice his garments in the window of his Maponya Mall shop in Soweto, in late 2010. What followed was a remarkable series of fortunate events.
“She was an archeology student and when she got back to Cambridge she found she needed to send the garment back for alterations and we got corresponding. She saw snippets of one of my shows on the Internet and wanted to start a business to import my clothes to the UK. She asked if I’d be willing to make a trip there to showcase some garments,” says Malatsi.
It just so happened that at that time the Branson Centre had been helping him raise funds to attend a show in Los Angeles for which Malatsi had developed a range. “That trip got cancelled so here I was with the money, the range and an invitation to travel overseas,” he continues. He showcased the line at the first ever Black Ethnic Minority Week in the UK. Slowly, orders started coming in.
The Cambridge archeology student wrote her thesis on African apparel, using Malatsi’s work as an example of how it had been modernised. “She asked me to showcase my clothes at her thesis presentation before a panel of judges and we won a prize of £1 000,” Malatsi relates. Some philanthropists, who just happened to be in the audience, added a £6 000 donation to the prize money and Malatsi secured retail space, setting up shop in Cambridge’s high street.
Malatsi has big plans for expansion in South Africa and for the development of an exciting accessories line. “People keep asking me things like ‘What socks do I wear with this outfit?’ or ‘Don’t you have something my child can wear?’ and I realised there was a real market for bags, shoes and jewellery – even children’s wear and homewear. I’ll be pushing this hard in the year ahead,” he concludes.
Making the most of opportunities
There can be little doubt that luck played an important role in Malatsi’s story but so too has his ability to take opportunities and make the most of them. From his association with the Branson Centre to the interest shown by a single UK customer in selling his clothes overseas, he’s also managed to establish relationships that have opened doors to new opportunities.