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Teaching designers to sew up business

Financial fabric: Nonzero co-founder Tania Habimana says the Threads initiative will help South African fashion designers become more business savvy. Picture: SUPPLIED

Africa is home to 15% of the global population and to millions of snappy dressers, so it’s odd that the continent earns only 1% of the annual $3-trillion spent on fashion.

Perhaps that’s because wealthy consumers think anything bearing a European label is infinitely more chic than a home-grown brand, while the mass market retailers import clothes from low-cost China.

Getting Africa to claim a more equitable portion of the global fashion industry is a mammoth task and will depend on turning arty fashion designers into savvy business people.

That’s the aim of Threads, a new entrepreneurship crash course created by the Nonzero marketing agency.

"There’s an incredible amount of creative talent out there with an eye for detail and creating magnificent garments, but transforming that into a viable business model is the problem," says Nonzero co-founder Tania Habimana.

"The creativity in the South African fashion industry is world-class — all these entrepreneurs really need is the vital sales, administrative, financial and marketing rigour that will take their businesses to the next level," she says.

Threads is a 12-week business accelerator course designed to help fashion entrepreneurs grow their businesses into powerful fashion brands able to create jobs in SA by clocking up global sales.

The scheme is backed by Standard Bank and Mercedes-Benz, with training taking place in Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

Participants will attend classes twice a week to learn skills including logistics, e-commerce, financing and accounting, franchising and marketing.

They will also go on field trips to look at resources such as SA’s world-class mohair, wool and cotton producers. In addition, they will visit the Durban port to learn about exporting and at the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London learn about supply chain management.

"We are not teaching them how to stitch — we all know how to stitch — but how to increase production and be competitive on the global landscape. We’re going to teach them how to run an organisation and grow a strong South African firm that can compete in Milan or New York," Habimana says.

The first 12 participants were chosen through a competition that attracted 416 well-qualified entrants. From those, 20 entrepreneurs were short-listed in each of the four cities where training will be held and they attended a day-long event to test their business acumen.

The criteria included having run their business profitably for at least a year. Some of the finalists have been moderately successful for several years but need help to make an international breakthrough.

The winners include Thabo Makhetha, who is becoming known for her designs using Basotho blankets, and Sabiha Badsha of Haya Collective, a Muslim who is designing contemporary modest wear.

Another is Jacqui Emmanuel of JSE Couture in Durban, who designs a luxury sportswear range called Emmanuel Sports-luxe. She employs eight people and also designs wedding gowns, but realised her skills could be redirected into a field with a far larger potential market. She sells her ranges through social media, online stores and via her company’s website.

"Understanding the business of fashion is really important," Emmanuel says. "Being a designer is good but making money is better, and if you can create an income from what you love, that’s a bonus.

"I want to be able to conquer bigger platforms and I need training and more business acumen. Having constructive criticism from people who will mentor you and train you in the necessary fields is really important," she said.

The judges included fashionista and former Elle editor Jackie Burger, who believes much work is needed to change consumer attitudes to African brands. Getting consumers to be proud of a "Made in SA" label will remain a battle until Africans take more pride in their heritage and their stories.

"If we are not proud of wearing our own designs and shouting it out, we are never going to cultivate that pride," Burger says. "If an international brand is still going to hold a higher gravitas in the way we express our creativity, we are never going to get this off the ground.

"Our biggest challenge is that our currency resides in our creativity and the Threads platform has to counterbalance that so we can become more fluent in the business opportunities.

"Globally, I have noticed a saturation of ideas and for the past two years, there’s been a definite look at Africa as a continent for skills and craft, which is a fantastic opportunity we can harness," Burger says.

Habimana has a background in the business of fashion, which is how she became aware of the general dearth of business skills. She holds a master’s degree in luxury goods and fashion management from Bocconi University in Milan and previously ran the digital operations for Levi’s across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

She then joined a Dutch menswear company and built up its presence in several African countries. "It was one of the toughest experiences of my life and when the store in Johannesburg closed down, I realised how hard it is to run a fashion business," she says.

Next, she presented a television show in which she travelled around Africa interviewing CEOs in the fashion business, and learning a lot in the process. "I started being approached by a few aspiring designers on how to run their businesses and realised the problem is bigger than me. It’s a continent-wide problem and I started brainstorming what could be done to solve this problem," she says.

The result is Threads, which will hopefully grow to become an annual, pan-African business incubation scheme.

After the initial 12-week course, one participant will win a trip to Europe to attend trade fairs and present the business to wholesalers and retailers.

The winner will also become a Mercedes-Benz ambassador for a year, driving a new car, and will receive a Standard Bank small business start-up pack.Read more at:formal dress online | womens formal dresses

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