Award-winning fashion designer David Tlale shares his insights on the fashion industry and dispels the myth that there is no money in the growing industry. We explore his path from running a studio from his mother’s house to rubbing shoulders with the top designers in the world. Tlale entered the fashion design industry in 2003 from his mother’s home with his little savings. Some 13 years later, the brand David Tlale is an award winning one with a global clientele. During a breakfast interview with The Patriot last week, Tlale explained that contrary to popular believe that fashion designers are struggling to make ends meet, the industry does indeed offer lucrative returns for those who are ready to work tirelessly.
“People say there are no profits in this industry but there is huge profits in this industry, however it is not instant…one needs to be patient. Some designers say there is no profits, but I say where there is business there is profit provided that it is managed well. The value chain of fashion design is enormous but our people lack the required skills and information in most cases to make it,” says Tlale.
Keen to increase his business’ visibility, Tlale stressed the importance of marketing.
“Marketing is everything because there is no point having an amazing product that is poorly marketed. Luxury brands are thriving not because they are amazing but because the marketing behind it is amazing. Marketing the business determines the sales,” he said.
Tlale bemoaned in most cases African designers are not well exposed to the business skills required in the fashion world. “In our case it has been an interesting journey because we as a brand crafted our own journey, learned our own mistakes and craft. Introducing David Tlale was quite challenging yet interesting, but now we can see the results of our investment-both emotionally and financially.”
The industry has the potential to create jobs, he said, adding that African governments should start investing in the fashion industry.
“Investment from the state will ensure job creation because of the huge value chain. In the case of South Africa which grows cotton, government can take people and put them back on the farms to grow cotton, farm sheep and ostrich and impart them with skills to add value to the produce. We can teach people to make clothing and invest in manufacturing plants in small townships. This will ensure that the entire manufacturing chain is local based,” he said.
The brand has taken off globally, boasts a proud Tlale, as he narrated how the company had to move from designing only spoke clothing to ready to wear clothing four years ago.
Highlighting his uphill task without the luxury of an investor, Tlale still invests heavily in new infrastructure and equipment to increase production capacity.
No need to compete
The 41-year-old designer also urged African designers to focus on the continental fashion industry instead of trying to compete with China, the United States and Europe.
“There is no need to compete because that space is fully occupied. It like buying fabric in Italy, manufacture it in Africa then you and try and sell it back to the Italians, the product will not stand out, hence we need to excel in what we do here by crafting our products and exporting them,” he advised. Tlale, who initially pursued an auditing degree when he first entered university, said he had to go against his mother’s wish and ditch audit school to pursue a degree in fashion design.
“We cannot compete with them at what they have been doing for years, we must give them our story because everything about Africa is luxury and everything we do has a story behind it that nobody can take away. So those traits must inform our designs,” he said. He also emphasized the importance of collaboration between designers, especially when they meet at fashion exhibition platforms.
“People are starting to pay attention to our work, all of a sudden we have entrepreneurs who are supporting locals and the new generation is amazing because they are very patriotic towards the African print.”
Tlale is optimistic that since the millennials have a keen eye for African designs, the increased interest should serve as encouragement for designers. “The new generation will help to propel the African fashion industry to the next level. And also, because of the huge influx of brands from outside the continent, retailers are forced to support local in order to provide something different,” he noted. He added: “In the past stores like Edgars and Stuttafords and Woolworths used to send out buyers to go find products, bring it in[to South Africa], copy it and sell it to us, but all the people they used to source from are in the country now and this forces them to turn to our designs in order to be different.”
Tlale believes that by supporting local talent and making sure local designers are taken care of will place local designers on equal footing with their western counterparts.
“In African terms this is a new era for the fashion industry which is quite exciting but frightening for seasoned retailers because their strategy has been disrupted,” he said.
Asked whether African designers are going astray when it comes to growing their footprint in the industry, Tlale said: “I would not say they are going wrong, they are just not exposed to the core business of fashion, attending fashion school, understanding the technicalities of making garments and the art of reinvent yourself as a brand. All that comes with education. If you do not have that background things will be difficult.” “Our people need mentorship to get accustomed to the trade because in the past they been exposed to bad quality and we learned to accept it just because it comes from somewhere else. The influx of Chinese products which has no quality also made things worse, hence we need to teach our people to start investing in quality products,” he concluded.