"The Fashion Business Like Any Other Business Is About Relationships" - Tshepo The Jean Maker
Tshepo Mohlala talks about how a supportive network helped him to survive in the competitive fashion industry
Tshepo The Jean Maker founder, Tshepo Mohlala (second from left) and some of his denim creations featuring Sibusiso Ngwenya (centre), founder of Skinny Sbu Socks. Images Courtesy: Tshepo The Jean Maker
Tshepo Mohlala, started his entrepreneurial journey with another young fashion entrepreneur who also went on to make similarly big moves, Sibusiso 'Skinny Sbu' Ngwenya.
As youngsters, then only 18, the pair launched a second-hand clothing business, Solomon’s Colonnade.
While their early joint venture went bust, Mohlala is today the founder of celebrity-endorsed premium ready-to-wear denim brand, Tshepo The Jean Maker which he launched in 2015, and Ngwenya, who is among Forbes Africa 30 under 30 entrepreneurs, went on to found his international premium sock brand, Skinny Sbu Socks.
The Big Break
This early start and building key relationships with others who share a similar vision and passion, has gone on to play a big part in Mohlala's success in business.
"Your network determines your net worth," says Mohlala whose network of collaborators, mentors and partners has grown considerably in his relatively short run in the fashion business.
It includes venture capitalist, Maps Maponyane, who he has worked with and credits for inspiring his career; early mentors George Diab, co-founder of Tailor Me and fashion stylist Felipe Mazibuko. He has also worked with brands like Palladium, a Dutch shoe brand and has dressed international producer P. Diddy.
Tshepo The Jean Maker founder Tshepo Mohlala (L) and some of his latest WENAWEDWA denim creations. Images Courtesy: Tshepo The Jean Maker
The Jean Maker brand produces traditional ready-to-wear men's denim wear that Mohlala describes as "clean, simple, sophisticated, practical, functional, young, adventurous, humorous and African". They have recently introduced a women's range.
One of his career's biggest breaks came through his internship with fashion designer, Ole Ledimo, an internationally renowned designer and founder of the fashion brand House Of Ole.
"When I met Ole, he said to me I should watch carefully and learn everything I need in order to grow my business. I learn by watching, listening and trial and error," says Mohlala.
"[The] Fashion business and any other business is about relationships. You have to maintain a great relationship with your clients and stakeholders and most importantly you can't be a CEO if you're not you!"
Before Jean Maker, Mohlala previously co-founded AfrikanSwiss, an urban lifestyle brand that specialises in denim which is widely accepted as Africa’s first denim brand, according to Business Day, together with designer Thato Mafubelu-Matabane and technology specialist, Vusi Ndinisa.
Mohlala left the brand in 2015 and now all his focus is on his solo project.
"I'm a game player in a saturated industry, white-dominated and highly competitive. I think my passion for what I do shows through my work, our attention to detail, every piece is carefully handcrafted and we are all about creating a great customer experience.
"Above all else our brand is authentic and this is clearly communicated by our brand name, though faced with many production challenges however, we manage to produce high-quality jeans that compete with the leaders of the industry at the moment."
Mohlala now credits the relationships he built along the way for where he is now.
"In business, you have to choose someone you think has what it takes to guide you to the next level. Someone with a great track record, and most importantly someone who is real with you and themselves.
"Choose someone who you think has walked where you walked or has been in business for years to teach you something valuable. Lastly, as an entrepreneur, you need to know how to sell yourself and know what you want from the mentor."