Fashion guru Gavin Rajah, best known for his flair for colour and a preference for garments cut “on the bias”, became the first local fashion designer to make it onto the catwalks of Paris where he has just completed his third season. Rajah started his career in clothing while studying law at the University of Cape Town. “I needed to make extra cash so I started selling clothes to the guys in res. This was my first foray into the world of clothing design and manufacture.” The word got out and soon he received requests for evening wear. “By the time I finished my degree, I realised I was not going to have much fun as a lawyer. It was also going to be difficult to do my articles and not earn a salary so I decided to create my own fashion label.”
He launched Gavin Rajah in 2000 with a loan from his parents. His first expense was on a range to show to potential buyers and boutiques. “I started off small, working from home and outsourcing to seamstresses who would make up the designs,” he recalls. Rajah says he had no big breaks along the way, noting that the growth of his label and his brand has been a natural progression preceded by a tough learning curve. Where others had gone to fashion school, Rajah knew nothing about the basics of design. “My peers had the advantage of having already cut their teeth at technikons. Through trial and error I taught myself what I needed to know and surrounded myself with talented and experienced seamstresses.” Today, while he believes he has not yet saturated the local market, he has entrenched his brand, a feat he says results from a fine balance between creativity, marketing and business savvy. “People in the industry laugh when they hear me talk about budgets, projections and forecasts, but the business is a success because I started out thinking big. We put all the systems and processes in place from the beginning, including a sophisticated software programme that enables us to work on detailed costings. This is essential if you want to create a viable commercial product in an industry where costs are high. They don’t teach you that at fashion school. They also don’t teach you how vital it is to build a brand.”
Rajah’s local success – he has dressed celebrities like Nelson Mandela, Basetsana Khumalo, Lebo Mathosa, and Michelle McLean – was followed by international recognition. Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise are among his fans. “It’s great to be successful and profitable at home, but to really make it in the fashion world I had to look beyond our borders. Showing your work to a global audience is a very different experience.” Looking to the future, Rajah has opened his first ready-to-wear store in Cape Town and another in Johannesburg is on the cards. “It’s taken a while, but I want my retail stores to have the same feel as my studio. I also wanted to ensure the garments would be affordable for local buyers and that there would always be sufficient stock. It takes time to get these things right.” Customers will soon be able to buy Rajah’s designs online, another area on which he has been spending a lot of time to ensure that garments are made to world class standards. In addition, he has designed an accessory collection, Accesstar, which is doing well locally and overseas.“Expanding into Europe was almost like starting a new business. You have to learn the way foreigners do things. It took us five years to get it right. We now have a showroom and an agent in Paris, as well as a PR person who represents us in Europe and ensures that the brand is visible. It’s been a long process, but everyone knows who we are today.”
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