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Shoes of Flavour: Carien Brewis

A young shoe producer survives the influx of Chinese goods by evolving with the market

Juliet Pitman

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Carien Brews of Shoes of Flavour

When strangers began stopping Carien Brewis in the street to ask her where she purchased her beaded sandals (and in some instances to ask her if they could swap their shoes with hers), the then 22-year-old started thinking business. “The shoes were from Indonesia but I started thinking that if I sold a pair for every time someone stopped to admire them, I’d be able to leave my job and support myself,” says the Cape Town-based entrepreneur.

This is exactly what she did. “I wasn’t enjoying being stuck behind a computer as a graphic designer and I really wanted to be doing something with my hands that contributed to society, so I left my job and started investigating what it would take to make a similar product locally,” she explains.

“Of course I could have simply imported them but it seemed ridiculous to do so when South Africans have such a rich beading heritage. And it was also very important to me from the beginning to create jobs for people,” she adds. After obtaining a list of shoe manufacturers from a raw materials supplier and visiting a host of different factories, it became clear that while making the shoes would be easy, the real challenge was going to lie in finding someone to do the beadwork.

“The shoes had to be beautifully beaded,” says Brewis, who made contact with a woman involved in various community projects in Cape Town’s townships. “She and my mom developed the unique beading technique required for the shoes which involved sewing beads onto fabric as opposed to the traditional bead-on-bead technique,” she explains. “Then we went into Khayelitsha with trestle tables and garden chairs which we set up in an old shebeen to train the beaders.”

At that time, Brewis says she simply wanted to determine if she could make a quality handmade product but she also admits to having had big dreams. “I don’t know why but right from the beginning I had this vision of supplying YDE – I could see the shoes on their shelves,” she says.

So, first sample batch in hand, she secured a meeting with Paul Simon, then-owner of YDE. “He loved the shoes and was so supportive of the idea of a hand-made South African product that created jobs for people. But he said there was a gap between the product I had brought him and the kind of quality that he would want to see on his shelves,” she relates.

Undeterred, Brewis went back to the drawing board to refine her product. “Initially we beaded onto an already-completed shoe but we changed this and started beading on the uppers first and then making up the shoe afterwards,” she explains. The fine-tuning paid off and Simon gave Brewis all the YDE stores. “Our first batch sold out in one weekend,” she recalls.

Shoes of Flavour supplied YDE for four years but as Chinese imports and embellished shoes started flooding the country, market conditions changed and YDE started stocking imported accessories and footwear. “Our shoes were no longer unique and we couldn’t compete with the Chinese on price or supply, so we had to reposition ourselves in the market. Instead of appealing to the mass fashion market, we changed tack and targeted consumers who would value a high quality, handmade, uniquely South African product,” she explains.

The company now supplies boutique stores across the country, including India Jane and Blackbeard & Dare.Looking back on the business journey she’s travelled, Brewis reflects on lessons learned: “In our first season I costed the product completely incorrectly so that while I could pay back my parents the R100, 000 loan they had given me, we didn’t make the kind of profit we should have.

I think it’s a common problem among people in craft industries but you learn pretty quickly as you go along.” About the future she says, “There’s a huge part of the South African market that we haven’t yet tapped into – we have the capacity to break into a much bigger market.” If the past six years are anything to go by, it’s a goal she’s more than capable of achieving.

Contact: +27 21 761 1997, www.shoesofflavour.com

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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