Last year, Palesa Mokubung, founder and creative director of the local fashion label Mantsho, received a call that would change the trajectory of her business. Swedish giant retailer H&M wanted to partner with Mantsho to release a collection celebrating the elegance and vibrancy of Africa, with modern edgy designs created for the stylish confident woman – exactly what Mantsho is premised on. It would be the clothing retailer’s first-ever collaboration with an African designer.
While a brand collaboration of this magnitude was not an easy decision to make, Mokubung decided to go for it. She felt that she had a lot to learn from a 72-year-old, billion-dollar retail house with 4 958 stores (as of February 2019) across the globe. Also, saying no would mean betraying her brand ethos of being a bold and confident woman.
Cue launch day, and the Mantsho x H&M merchandise sold out at several local H&M stores within hours. #MantshoxHM trended at the top spot nationally on Twitter, garnering widespread media attention from Teen Vogue, Essence, CNN and Bloomberg, among other outlets.
“What has been happening is that we’ve been getting a lot of new clients and Mantsho is now a fully-fledged international brand,” she tells finweek.
How did you end up studying fashion?
I’ve always known that I’m a creative; so are my father and brother (who designed the Mantsho logo). So when I finished school, I didn’t worry much about what I was going to study — I just knew that it would be in arts.
How was Mantsho established?
I started out in the design industry at Stoned Cherrie as a junior designer. After entering a national design competition and winning in the fashion category, I parted ways with Stoned Cherrie on good terms and went on to travel the world. Part of the prize included shooting a 13-episode televised series, after which I set up my own fashion label.
I put my best foot forward and relied on my talent, experience and all the knowledge I had received from Stoned Cherrie and had a go at it. I wanted a name that is natively South African. Mantsho means ‘black is beautiful’ in Sesotho.
How did you secure the funding to get started?
I’ve never had funding or help. My business is 100% owned by me. I built it from dress to dress, skirt to skirt, top to top. I don’t owe anybody, nor have loans. I started off with a focus of order-to-order. Now we’re going deal-to-deal. But for me, it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a profit of R3 000, R30 000 or more, I still treat all customers the same.
Tell us about your first sale.
My first sale was from an A-line skirt that I had made for a client. As much as I enjoy making garments for red carpets, I still enjoy making clothes that people can wear every day.
What differentiates Mantsho from other labels?
I have a good eye for fabric, patterns and prints. And we create some of the prints on Mantsho garments ourselves. I have a real interest in textiles. We also go to the ends of the earth to look for unique fabrics.
What are some of Mantsho’s major overheads?
A lot goes towards fabric and petrol, from running between the studio, store and clients.
How many people does Mantsho employ?
I employ 15 people which, for me, is a lot.
This is where discipline as a businessperson also comes in. One has to be disciplined with money, because you are responsible for the livelihoods of 15 people and possibly more, when you factor in the families they support.
There are two to three people who man the Mantsho store at 27 Boxes, in Melville, and the rest at the studio in Johannesburg.
How have you managed to successfully run a design business as a creative?
I may be a creative, but I am also an intellectual.
I love business, I read and keep up with business articles. I love making money and enjoy selling clothes. I am such a hustler – if I wasn’t doing this on a scale this big, I strongly feel that I still would have been some sort of a successful creative entrepreneur.
Another thing: As a creative running a business, you can’t stay in the creative zone forever. Else, the bills won’t get paid and some things won’t get done. So there comes a time when I realise that I now have to step away from the design process and step into day-long meetings about, for instance, numbers. Then I also apply myself in those meetings.
I am often the slowest in those meetings because finance is not my forte, but I engage and ask a lot of questions and walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the business side of things.
What are the types of business challenges you encountered as a creative entrepreneur?
Everything, every decision, is a challenge in business.
Building a good team was one major challenge. Deciding on who to keep and who to let go is a pain. Some people come and are not the most trustworthy of team members, or are not what they said they were. Or they don’t do what you ask them to do. This weakens the rest of the team and you really need a strong team to succeed, especially if you can’t always be there in person.
Finance was also a bit of an issue when I fully and properly ventured out into business. There was a time when I struggled to sustain the business. But it all got better after I went back to school to finish my Bachelor of Arts degree in fashion design. I learnt to be involved in every aspect of the business – to be in tune with the business.
Plans for the future for Mantsho?
The world is calling. We’re busy with a lot of exciting projects that we’ll talk about in due course.
We are also very selective about which fashion shows to take part in; it’s not about the number of shows you could be in or carry out, but how many shows you could do very well with. (I keep saying ‘we, we, we’ because I really have a good support structure in place, including my family at home.)
What I’ve also come to realise is that there has never really been a black female role model in the local fashion industry — someone who is leading, cool, funky and beautiful. Someone with the qualities of a hard worker, like perseverance for one, relentlessness, focus and discipline. I am more than happy to take on the responsibility to inspire and lead.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring or budding creative entrepreneurs?
It’s tough out there. It’s got to do with ‘self’ and not necessarily the ‘field’. There is something that you strongly know about yourself, that nobody could ever take away. For me it’s knowing that I am artsy, which makes me gutsy.
I know that I am a creative and nobody can take that away from me, whether other people believe it or not, whether you are chosen or not, whether it works out for you or not — you will still retain that talent or quality.
Sometimes it could even be that you serve well, and that is your strength. Take pride in it and use it.