“I got two types of customers, she’s either super rich, or a lady who saved up R8000 ($600 at current exchange rate) for the dress,” South African fashion designer Thula Sindi tells me as we drive from his store inside Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall, to his second mono-brand location at Pretoria’s Menlyn Park Shopping Centre. Sindi, a household name in his native South Africa, carved a niche for himself by hustling up a clientele which largely consists of female leaders across the fields of business and politics. While many of his counterparts design for the red carpet, he designs for the boardroom.
The day South Africa’s Minister of Communications & Telecommunications – Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams – was sworn in, she opted for a black sleeveless Thula Sindi ensemble. Ms. Nbadeni-Abrahams is one of many powerful South African women Sindi may consider a steady customer. “I opened the second store in Pretoria because many politicians live here,” Sindi says of his retail strategy. A strategy which prioritizes the brick-and-mortar concept over e-commerce. “We sell about 10 to 20 pieces of the collection online. I find that people treat e-commerce as window shopping. So they’ll check the prices online before they visit the store. In terms of location, it’s all about ease for South Africans. You’ll find us inside shopping malls cause it’s convenient to our customers to do both shopping and groceries under the same roof. The downside of setting up shop inside a shopping mall however, is the price of rent. Foreign brands can easily afford a multi-year lease, but to many local designers this forms a greater challenge.”
In power dressing his client roster of female decisionmakers, the fashion designer’s approach has little to do with padded shoulders or Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuits. On the contrary, he celebrates the female silhouette by way of different volumes, colorful fabrics, and romantic details. His designs – largely consisting of skirts and dresses, besides accessories and shirts – highlight a woman’s physical assets, without falling into the “sex sells” cliché. “It’s clothing women buy for themselves – not for others. It’s not fantasy clothing with high slits etc. It’s for women who want to look put together,” Sindi comments, who founded his company in the year 2007. The decision to start on his own came after a lucrative consulting gig for wax print manufacturer Vlisco.
“Repeat business is a key issue to most high-end brands in the country. It’s mainly because of the price point and when it’s less essential clothing. Red carpet dresses don’t sell on a regular basis, and the wedding business is centered around the summer season only. I don’t think it (the latter) is sustainable, cause it takes a lot of time and is on the super-premium side,” the Thula Sindi founder elaborates with regards to the direction of his company.
The Thula Sindi woman means business. For that very reason, his end-of-the-year private sale has turned into a coveted networking event in its own right. “Women are smart in how they shop, so if they know a sale is coming they’ll wait till the product is sold at a discount price. Therefore, our sale is not open to the public, but to our customers only – over the course of two days. There will be the CEO and the middle management woman in the same place,” the designer says of the event where apparel is sold at a 50%-90% discount.
As far as securing future customers is concerned, Sindi largely relies on Instagram as a marketing tool. On the social media platform, he regularly posts pictures of happy customers dressed in his designs. “Social media is the new word of mouth. By posting pictures of satisfied customers on our Instagram page we also reach her circle of friends. And that circle will believe her, before they believe me.”