Ten years ago, Chloe Townsend’s love for making things led her to start Missibaba, the luxury accessories brand that she co-owns with Lizel Strydom. Today, Missibaba is perhaps one of the country’s best-loved homegrown luxury accessories brands and while this queen can’t yet afford some of the fine pieces they make (working hard on that), I’m one of many- I am sure- who knows that a Missibaba bag is essential for anyone with a love for great local fashion.
Here at Skattie, we thought it would be great to highlight South African accessories and jewellery, just looking at a few of the brands in this category, the people behind them as well as how they are making things work in a sometimes difficult market like our beloved South Africa. Mali focused on Pichulik earlier and I spoke to Lizel and Chloe about their now ten years old business.
“Our first solo studio was a cold storage room with seamstress Des & Chloe. There was zero ventilation and we all used to smoke & apply our really toxic glue without a second thought for our little inner tree: our lungs & brain cells,” the duo recall.
“Today we are a fabulous ten-strong all women team in a wonderfully lit and incredibly well ventilated studio overlooking our beloved Table Mountain. We are having more fun than ever and the space and the souls within it are vibrating with colour and creativity.”
It has not been easy, as it never is for any brand in the South African fashion landscape. First comes the challenge of building a brand, then comes the all-too-familiar disdain or downright ignorance a lot of South Africans have when it comes to local brands. I personally recall an incident, about two years ago, on my way to a Missibaba launch at their store on Bree Street, Cape Town. Before going there, I met up with a friend at the café next door. He had another friend join us. Seeing that there was a lot happening at Missibaba, with the many well-dressed fashion industry folk either sipping champagne or smoking cigarettes outside, my buddy’s chum found himself wondering into the Missibaba store out of curiosity. When he came out to join us at the café, he started complaining about the prices. I tried explaining to him that Missibaba is a luxury brand in the same way that Gucci or Prada are. If that is not enough to foster appreciation, I suggested he think of it as buying a well-crafted South African product. There was no winning with him; he was convinced that a South African brand is not worth paying as much as he would expect to cough up at Gucci. What a pity we still have people who are so badly misinformed.
It is within this kind of environment that the likes of Chloe and Lizel, and other fashion entrepreneurs, are operating, but they persevere.
“People understand the idea of luxury as being something international – the challenge has been to educate and make people appreciate local luxury,” Chloe and Lizel say, adding that they believe they have a good product that speaks for itself.
“We have continued to hone our bag making skills, always looking for ways to push the boundaries through a brutal attention to detail and an understanding of the importance of the investment of love and energy that is needed to create each piece.”
Other challenges, the duo add, have included navigating market access and balancing this with the fact that they are, after all, running a business and, let’s face it, no matter how much you love what you do, making money is the point of any business. “We view challenges as potential for growth, so it’s been a full blossoming journey. One of the main challenges has been a lack of easy access to good quality materials. This has pushed us to create as much as possible in-house, which has strengthened and clarified Missibaba’s unique design handwriting.”
“The second biggest challenge has been finding the right platform to reach our customer and for this to make sense with our cash flow. We tried wholesale for many years but this left us bleeding badly. We found it therefore unsustainable as our pieces are really expensive to make.” “With the shop markup you either price yourself out of the market or the margins are so slim that there is no way you can sustain the business. It is still a challenge to make ends meet but the opening of our shops has allowed us to continue to grow the brand.”