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Sun Goddess: Thando & Vanya Mangaliso

An entrepreneurial couple look to their roots for inspiration when creating Afro-Couture

Juliet Pitman

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Thando & Vanya Mangaliso of Sun Goddess

A hive of frenetic activity greets you as you enter the Sun Godd’ess offices. There’s tangible energy here, and when you meet the dynamic husband-and-wife team of Thando and Vanya Mangaliso who started it all, it’s not hard to see where it comes from.

They began selling skirts out of the boot of their VW Beetle in 2000. Today they own a revolutionary fashion brand with four retail outlets, and have participated in a string of fashion shows in places as far-flung as Washington, Stockholm and Singapore.

With such a record of success it’s interesting to learn that, although clothing is something that the pair has always been interested in, neither of them has any training in the fashion industry. This presented its own challenges and they had to learn the industry as they went along.

“You can imagine what it’s like being in this industry and not knowing where to find a zip or a bead,” explains Thando. “We went into it all a bit like children, and while we did research the industry, we didn’t go into too much depth. That turned out to be a good thing because there was a lot of negativity around at the time and we might have been put off by it.”

Naiveté was balanced by solid entrepreneurial skills and a background in business, as well as a structured business plan. The pair attributes their success in part to their uniquely ethnic African designs. They highlight a trend in the industry, where countries are returning to their traditional styles and ways of designing clothes, instead of just trying to emulate the trends of France and Italy.

“It was very encouraging for us to see these signs. We noticed that the more ethnic we were, the stronger the response was,” they say, adding: “We’ve stuck to a distinctive style.”

Family businesses are notorious for disharmony, but that’s certainly not the case in this partnership. While Thando focuses on the retail side, dealing with centre management, staff and finances, Vanya oversees design and the studio.

It’s a formula that has worked since the business’s inception, and they’ve stuck to it. However, the business success inevitably brought with it growing pains. The Mangalisos had previously done everything themselves, but it soon became apparent that this would no longer be possible.

It became necessary to put structures in place to support a larger operation. Instead of taking all phone calls themselves, they now have two people manning reception. Two months ago they hired a bookkeeper. Whereas Thando used to run the single store on his own, he now employs staff to manage the four outlets across the country.

The business has gone from having one designer and one seamstress to having six designers and 100 seamstresses. However necessary these changes are, relinquishing control is not always easy. Thando remembers how unnerving it was the first time someone else counted stock. “I had to leave the shop to let them get on with their job,” he says.

Getting it right requires balance. Thando still keeps his finger on the pulse of all his retail outlets, making sure he’s intimately involved. He understands that the retail outlets are the heart of the business. “If we don’t sell the clothes, it’s all over,” he says.

The business’s sales strategy has a human focus. While talent and knowledge in their salespeople is a given, the team look for people who are ‘personalities’. “A lot of our clients are repeat business, so it’s crucial that our salespeople build personal relationships with them,” Thando says. He also tries to instil a positive mental approach in his sales staff.

“They need to encourage shoppers not to be afraid to try garments on, not to be intimidated,” he says. One of the major challenges Sun Godd’ess faced was pricing. “We started in a Rosebank boutique and for the first 18 months or so, were charging more than people were willing to pay.

We had to work really hard on changing their mindsets,” says Thando. Prices have increased as the brand has gained popularity, but he points out that it’s only because more luxurious fabrics and intricate designs are being used.

“People are paying for what they’re getting, as they have always done with our clothes. In the past garments might have been cheaper, but we weren’t using silks and Swarovski crystals then,” he adds. The buying public has grown with the business, learning the value of the garments, and is now willing to pay for them. The clothing sells. It’s the surest measure of success in retail.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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