When Michelle Okafor first moved to Joburg from Cape Town with her husband in 2009, she was a travel agent with no intentions of opening her own business. That same year however, she travelled to Nigeria to meet her husband’s family and fell in love with the bright, colourful fabrics that the women wear.
“You couldn’t get fabrics like that in South Africa,” she says. “I wanted to create some everyday wear with them, and so I brought some fabric home and put up ads on Gumtree looking for freelance designers and seamstresses who could help me.”
It wasn’t long before Okafor started getting complimented on her unique and unusual clothes, and she realised there was a market for everyday wear in the bright fabrics.
“I started importing the fabrics, and working with a freelance designer and seamstresses. We’ve created a few set designs, and are also able to create pieces that clients specifically request.”
Okafor spent 18 months working while she set up the business after-hours, but by the end of 2012 she was able to resign and concentrate full time on Michelle Okafor African Designs.
“I love what I do, but there are a few lessons I’ve learnt along the way,” she says.
The first tough decision was choosing to remain niche. “It’s tempting to do as much as possible, particularly at the beginning,” says Okafor.
“I had a lot of people asking me if I do matric dance dresses for example. But you can’t be everything to everybody. I’m creating a niche brand. Others might join this market, but my aim is to be a well-known brand in these fabrics and designs by then, and to achieve that, I need to remain focused.”
Okafor has also needed to find reliable and experienced seamstresses. “I mitigate my risk by contracting seamstresses per job. This gives me a chance to evaluate the quality of their work and how reliable they are without putting a large job and a large outlay of cash on the line. I’ve found that excellent seamstresses are hard to come by, and that it pays to be careful.”
Another big decision was choosing not to accept a wholesale deal. “I’m in a number of key boutiques, and my website attracts individual clients, but interest from a big retailer was a dream come true – until I carefully evaluated the opportunity.
“Growth like that leaves a large margin for error – instead of producing one dress at a time for example, I’d be producing 100 dresses. I don’t have that capacity yet. The price margins also didn’t work for me. Wholesale prices bring your margins down, and you can only make those up with high volumes.
“Once I did the numbers, I realised it was better to walk away from the deal. Slow, steady, organic growth is better for my brand.”
- Company: Michelle Okafor Africa Designs
- Player: Michelle Okafor
- Est: 2012
- visit: www.michelleokafor.co.za