Local fashion designer has a unique ToVch | Fin24

Local fashion designer has a unique ToVch

Jun 08 2016 08:50
Buhle Ndweni

Thabo Khumalo, owner and CEO of clothing brand ToVch. (Lourens Reyneke)

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Self-taught fashion designer and entrepreneur from Soweto, Thabo Khumalo, is the owner of androgynous fashion brand ToVch (pronounced “touch”), which he founded in 2010.

In 2014 he was runner-up in the SA Fashion Week (SAFW) Scouting Menswear Competition, opening doors for him to showcase his designs on the runway with some of SA’s most well-known designers and brands, including House of Olé, Ephraim Molingoane (Ephymol), Roman Handt, Paledi Segapo (Palse Homme), Gert-Johan Coetzee and Craig Jacobs. 

What did you do prior to starting your own business?

I started sewing and redesigning clothes at the age of eight. I used to redesign the clothes my mother had bought me. I broke a few sewing machines and needles, which got me into a lot of trouble with my mom until she decided to sell me one of her old sewing machines when I was 19.

In the beginning I did not take fashion seriously and would only sew and redesign my own clothes, so no revenue was generated. I had to find work to survive – my first job was managing a hair salon.

Overseeing its daily operations gave me insight on what it takes to run a business and inspired me to follow my passion. 

Where did the idea come from and what is the inspiration behind your collection?

I identified a gap in the local market for menswear. The female fashion industry was saturated and competitive, while fashion for men was less crowded and beginning to show rapid growth.

The menswear market is growing as more men feel that their appearance is important and are willing to invest more time, effort and money on their grooming and appearance.

ToVch is inspired by street fashion and Generation Z. ToVch imparts a feminine touch to menswear and brings masculinity to feminine dressing. 

How did you make your first sale?

My first sale was through friends. They loved my clothes and style and would place orders. After I showcased my work at the Mpumalanga and Soweto Fashion Weeks, some boutiques noticed my designs.

One boutique with stores in The Glen, The Zone, Maponya Mall and East Rand Mall, approached me to supply their shops – a dream come true for a young designer from Soweto.  

Initially I experienced the normal hiccups, like late, irregular, and incomplete payments. But this did not deter me.

I am currently supplying to Fashion Kraal, situated in Johannesburg. They also have an online store. We also have clients who walk into our studios. 

When did you officially start operating?

I registered the company in 2010 as Ghetto Bling, inspired by Soweto street fashion and glamour. We later relaunched to Touch Of Bling to launch in the SAFW Scouting Menswear Competition. We’ve since changed the name to ToVch in order to appeal to a wider market.

How did you get funding to get started?

While working as a hair salon manager, I saved up all the money that I made after work and during weekends from my fashion business.

I raised just about enough to afford three months’ rental for a studio in the Johannesburg CBD, which I initially shared with other designer friends. My business could finally move out of my mom’s house in Soweto.  

How did you come to enter SA Fashion Week (SAFW)?

I learnt about the competition through staying up to date with the local fashion industry (I follow SAFW on social media and read fashion and entrepreneurship publications).

It was a tough competition – the selection criteria are very stringent and the judging panel very strict. You need to be authentic and know your story as a designer. From 14 designers, seven went through to the finals and I was selected as first runner-up. 

As a finalist, I could showcase at the SA Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2015 Collections in October 2014 to an audience of buyers, media and fashion leaders.

I got introduced to different markets and big fashion industry players – the resultant growth of the brand led to the rebranding (as ToVch) in order to cater for different markets. 

What have been the three biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome? 

? Competing with an influx of well-established brands by big retailers and boutiques, and imports of low-quality Chinese products and global brands. Ours is a premium and exclusive brand and our products are tailor-made according to the customer’s specifications, which makes the  production process costly.

? Exploitation by boutiques. Violation of terms and conditions of contracts, including payment conditions. We now sign contracts with clear and comprehensive terms and conditions with whomever we do business.

? Marketing the brand with limited funds. We use social media and word-of-mouth to market the brand. We also engage celebrities to be our ambassadors by dressing them for special events.

Biggest lesson learnt?

I have been taken advantage of many times by clients and shops I supplied to because I did not have solid and comprehensive contracts in place. Small businesses, artists and creatives in particular, must seek legal advice and go for business coaching prior to signing any contracts or engaging their stakeholders and customers.

How tough is competition in your sector, and what differentiates your product from others?

Fashion is a cut-throat industry affected by economic, political, environmental, social, legal and technological forces.

I continuously scan my sector, both globally and locally, in order to stay relevant. I maintain my competitive advantage by designing and producing gender-fluid fashion-forward and street-inspired menswear.

I also design and print my own fabric, focusing on bold prints and designs, meaning my fabric prints and designs are original, unique and exclusive.

I realised that many SA designers buy their fabrics from almost the same suppliers or factories, which makes it highly likely that they will end up showcasing another designers’ fabric.

The bold prints and designs make my collections stand out. I love that exclusivity; that’s why I prefer printing my own fabrics.  

How many people do you currently employ?

ToVch currently employs seven people. We now have an office manager, a project stylist (project based), marketing and sales intern and two seamstresses. The business is led by both myself, as CEO, and my business partner Msekeli Mpapama, who handles the daily operations. 

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Look for a compatible business partner, find an experienced mentor and have a solid business plan.

In the fashion business it’s important to find a business partner that brings business acumen and the resources necessary to run the business’s operations, while you as the fashion designer focus on your creativity, customer service and other core capabilities of the business.  

How do you stay motivated?

I am a very spiritual person. I pray winning and I pray losing. I surround myself with people who have positive mindsets and who are mostly ahead of me in terms of achievements – they keep me motivated. I also love giving genuinely – not for recognition. 

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work-life balance?

I enjoy listening to business coaching audio clips and soulful music, which inspire my creativity and fuel my entrepreneurial spirit. Reading business/entrepreneurship articles, and researching fashion trends and the fashion industry as a whole, also keep me sane, relevant and motivated.

For me it’s not just about fashion, designing and producing garments – I consider myself ?an entrepreneur that is in the business of fashion. 

What is your three-year goal for your company?

I want to open a ToVch bridal shop. I would also like to supply more high-end fashion boutiques and retailers. Currently we are not supplying to any boutiques, but we do have a few deals in the pipeline.

After a few disappointments and setbacks with boutiques, we have decided to seek legal and business guidance from our consultants and mentors on how to engage boutiques moving forward.

Lastly, I want to start an organisation that will motivate, mentor and coach young and up-and-coming designers.

This article originally appeared in the 2 June 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here. 

design  |  fashion  |  life  |  entrepreneur

2 April issue
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