Thula Sindi is a Johannesburg based fashion designer in business and now the chief curator for Africa Rise collective boutique store in Sandton City, Johannesburg. His vision is to mainstream the presence of African fashion enterprises and brands within the South African retail spaces, ultimately putting the designer in contact with customers and building lasting relationships. His mission is to achieve this with multi-geographical footprints of Africa Rise rise retail stores.
The first store opened today and it is neatly located in a prime spot, the second floor next to the escalator adjacent to Mug & Bean in Sandton City. This means foot traffic, eyeballs and hopefully open purses to do major daily shopping. Sindi said in a Kaya FM interview that he is against the notion of ‘support’ but rather wants people to make this a seamless shopping exercise they would at any other retail outlets lets say, for example, Vuitton, Mr Price etc without of a sense of ‘I am supporting’ instead of I am buying I product I love, want or need.
Africa Rise is a gallery style store that houses various African designer apparel products that are curated as if they are in their natural habitat. For example, the Mozambiquan fashion designer brand Taibo Bacar space has a similar feel to their store in Hyde Park, Thula Sindi’s space has a feel of their boutique in Rosebank and Menlyn, Mantsho by Palesa Mokubong corner looks like what you would expect to see at her boutique store situated at 27Boxes in Melville. If you have ever been to Maria McCloy’s textured apartment you can tell that her space at Africa Rise is merchandised to give it a feel of her home where her showroom is currently based.
On race relation, diversity and representation Sindi said, “… we are very diverse people; me and Palesa [Mantsho] we are different people in the world, me and Phaphama [Africa Your Time Is Now] we are different people in the world, me and Ephraim [Ephymol] we are different people in the world. We actually are diverse within ourselves, we cannot look at ourselves within outside being colonized and think we are black. There [are] people (stockists) from Rwanda – Millie Collines, there [are] people from Tanzania – Anisa [Loin Cloth & Ashes]. We are different and that is our beauty. So, we are not going to look at ourselves as black, that’s what I will not do, they ain’t black. These are designers from across the continent and a continent that has African people. You will end up having a store with African people… we are diverse and we cannot look at ourselves as black, we are not black we are Africans. There is different artists, different nationalities and different voices. And those voices all deserve to be heard in a prime spot like this instead of prioritizing white representation in Africa.”
As the principal curator, Sindi will keep changing the store’s designer offering according to consumer demands, tastes and internal business key performance indicators which he says will not only be limited to financial performance. “When we move to other sectors there other things that would dictate. For example, if we move to V&A (Waterfront, Cape Town) I might need to choose more Cape Town-based designers. So, shops must reflect where they are based” said Sindi.
The plan is to keep key founding designers that are strong in all the future regional stores with edition to other local designers where the store opens whilst still retaining what is instinctively Africa Rise proposition. Sindi said “the store has its own feel, has its own target and each designer and each designer space will be curated to fit that. So if we go to new locations, thankfully, they should offer something special. Also, we want people to go from store-to-store that if I ever go to Cape Town. I want to pop into, say, Africa Rise Cape Town because it has its own unique flavour and its own unique twist that is also relevant to the market there and the taste there.”
In relation to the business growth strategy, the Sandton City store will also serve as a case study for future stores that Sindi plans to open. It will guide him in ‘getting it right’ for regional markets not only in customer taste and what they want to see and buy but also the store layouts should reflect all of those objectives. He views it as a ‘nice interesting challenge’ Sindi goes on to say ‘I love retail, I love the science of it, I love the passionate side of it and I love the business side of it”.
One of Sindi’s close friends. Terry Pheto said last night, ‘it is already a mission to organise dinner with friends now imagine putting all this together with various designers.‘ This is not only the creative business of fashion but Sindi is also in the commercial property and all the legalese that comes with it. Sindi has cut his teeth in this retail business few years back which he has acknowledged that it has come with difficulties such as a bad business partnership that led to his first Rosebank store being closed before reopening in a new location within the same shopping centre.
To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt he is ‘The Man in The Arena”. He learnt from time and has since with the love and support of his ever-present parents opened multiple stores in various shopping centres. His first store was at The Zone in Rosebank, the second store, now closed, was in his home town Matlhosana in Klerksdorp, then it was Menlyn Mall in Pretoria and he has recently now championed another real estate in Sandton City.
Most designer collective stores work on a few popular models three of them being, consignment, upfront stock purchase by the retailer or collective designers being charged monthly rent-a-rail (per square metre) plus X amount percentage cut on overall monthly sales per designer to cover variable costs and profitability. Asked if he is willing to share his business model structure should people would like to emulate it, Sindi answered ‘let’s make it work first and I can open business classes thereafter, let’s see how it go. Like I said, we all need to perform and it is going to be a great lesson even for the designers, for all of us. On how we can tweak our product, what can we do in terms of price point, in terms of product, what’s missing, what should be there, how to complement each other and things like that. Because it is not just about the individual designers but it’s about how do we fit into each other to create a product mix”.
One of the primary reason Sindi created the store was to have a space that can offer a full product range from decor, accessories, clothing and footwear that are not necessarily by one designer because ‘most brands can’t invest in having all of those things even billion-dollar brands. Most brands don’t have certain things’ said Sindi.
Consequently, the business is really about education and changing perceptions because one of his mission is for people to walk into the store ‘and leave having been educated about what [South] Africa fashion is and what it is not’ – like some special treat for people to go to a traditional wedding’.
The objective is to make the store product offering to be part of people office attire, casual wear and part of people’s daily shopping hence ‘I want to be in shopping malls that are busy, malls that have the incidental shoppers. The moment you off the beating track you basically asking people to come visit you when they think about you. Clothes are not the most important thing, there are more important stuff than that. So you need to be where the people are, just happen to be” said Sindi.
In his interview on Kaya FM with Matsonyane, he said that he is ‘very adamant about South African designers being where the money is being spent” for example shopping malls and airports. He also acknowledged that he took “… a big risk. I have bid on my self and I have bid on black. You can never go wrong there.”
As the head designer of his namesake fashion house Thula Sindi established in 2005 and the man behind the entrepreneurial business venture of commercial real estate and retail development (Africa Rise) in Africa. Will we Sindi appoint a creative director to take over the design side things of his fashion line? Sindi said ‘never, I don’t think so’ to which he quickly changed to state ‘never say never’. He went on to say “for me, design comes so naturally, I can design a collection in an afternoon. You know, design for me is a natural way of life.” he simplistically view designing as his job and if cannot do it, that means he cannot do his job.
“Once you know what you doing and you have got a brand it almost dictates on what the product will be. Look at a brand like Chanel, you could even design at Chanel, anyone could design at Chanel ’cause it is already a framework and that is what a brand is. And I enjoy also, working on my own brand it is a different animal altogether… completely different price point, completely different customer base and it juices up a different part of my mind” said Sindi.
For now, he will allow the duality between his different business interests: Africa Rise and House of Thula Sindi to carry on with him at the helm. He views the Africa Rise business venture as a management job as opposed to a creative one. “It is more management of designers, management of stock, it is not even creative per se. It is the management of all these different things. We take that information and we create wealth from that information” said Sindi.
Sindi notes that: although the objective is to make money the business will also make for a great thesis on the understanding of consumer purchase decision process in [South] Africa.