‘Learning the fashion business from retail giants helped me build my startup’
The fashion industry is a cut-throat one that can either bring fame and stardom, or swallow up any entrepreneur. It’s an industry where the faint-hearted are swept under the catwalk carpet.
29-year-old Maloti Mothobi learnt the hard way that starting a fashion label demands more than just creative talent. Her street-inspired clothing line, Strato Couture, is now an established brand after she went back to the drawing board and learned from industry players how the fashion business works.
“I can see that its original failure was not because the idea wasn’t strong enough, but rather the implementation of its strategies was not focused,” she said.
“It clearly wasn’t working out. So I went back to searching in the job market”
Mothobi started Strato Couture, a South African township slang word for street, in 2006 as an evening-wear clothing line for the seasonal matric ball market.
As a young girl growing up in Lesotho, Mothobi’s modelling dream was shattered when she learnt that she did not meet the height requirements to be a model. That brick-wall helped her change career paths, and went into fashion design instead.
“I always understood that my mind was creative so I sought to venture into design,” she said. But she found the going very tough in the fashion industry.
“I found myself making matric dance dresses and traditional attire for my mother’s church friends. It clearly wasn’t working out. So I went back to searching in the job market.”
Learning from big business
In 2004 after graduating with a B-Tech degree in fashion design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (then Cape Technikon), she secured a job at the Foschini Retail Group Head Office working as a trainee buyer for two years.
“I got bored. I found that there was nothing more to my title than being an assistant. I wanted to draw, but nobody drew”
She worked in the buying department where she was tasked with selecting product ranges and monitoring their performance in stores.
“Working at Foschini made me realise that we [South Africa] do not have our own street apparel. In the market we have Nike, Adidas, and Puma – but none of them are our own,” she said.
Mothobi gained an invaluable experience in her job, but she says she also felt that her entrepreneurial spirit was being drained.
“I got bored. I found that there was nothing more to my title than being an assistant. I wanted to draw, but nobody drew,” she says.
Mothobi learned how to leverage marketing and a corporate identity to maintain a profitable fashion brand. But another opportunity presented itself.
“There I took advantage of the few strategies I picked up within the industry to help further my brand”
Mothobi went on to work another three years at the Cape Town Fashion Council (CTFC) as a marketing officer, where she was responsible for events planning and co-ordination, website maintenance, and content compilation of bi-monthly e-newsletter and print media.”There I took advantage of the few strategies I picked up within the industry to help further my brand,” she said.
“For example, I established strong relationships with people within the manufacturing process, who later gave me sample materials and I sent my products to magazines, who used them for editorials – helping me gain the branding exposure I needed. And by the end of the year, I proved both in theory and practice how to create a sustainable brand.”
Mothobi had to put her business on ice when she took the job at the CTFC as she was also studying towards an honours degree in marketing. But after graduating, she left her job to revive Strato with a brand new look.
Her breakthrough came in 2001 when she opened a clothing boutique, the Strato Concept Store, on Cape Town’s famous Long Street.
Strato manufactures and retails street fashion for men, promotional clothing, tailor-made corporate and evening wear for private clients.
Mothobi has secured a stall outlet at the V&A Waterfront to tap into the domestic and international tourist market, over and above an active online store.
She said she also had to go back to marketing basics, under the guidance of the course, and build the concept of Strato into a brand that would attract people’s attention.
“I draw inspiration from everyday people who overcome tough challenges in their lives and admire female entrepreneurs who continuously strive against all odds,” she said.
Strato Couture was recently awarded a winner in the manufacturing category at the 2014 Business Investment Competition awards held at the Kyalami Race Track.