Korbla Dzotsi founded his fashion label 10 years ago, and he called it Shirt & Co, mainly because he wanted to focus on, well, shirts, and still be free to dabble in other apparel. It’s now a full-on company, trading locally and at a handful of other African countries. What you might not know about Korbla is that when he moved to SA from the UK 10 years ago, he was a banker with no fashion industry experience. By his own admission, for the first seven years, while he was still in banking, Shirt & Co was more of a passive exercise done for the love of it. However, in the last three years, he and his partners have focused on building Shirt & Co as a strong fashion brand and business. Naturally, I’ve been watching, and my curiosity was piqued by the story of this banker-turned-designer, so I visited his studio.
What is your background exactly?
It’s actually systems design: industrial systems, computing systems, banking technologies, that sort of thing. Although it’s helped me a lot on the business side of things, I realized very early on that I was only in it for the money, that I had no love for it. It was still a good platform for me to build cash reserves I suppose, to fund a lot of what goes on now. The hope of course is that I am able to transform that cash into something that I can enjoy doing for the next ten to twenty years.
My interest in fashion came from frustration more than anything else. What I often found was that I couldn’t get shirts that fitted me very well. There were issues with sleeve lengths, collar sizes, and things like that. Although I am completely self-taught, my mom actually used to sew, so I sort of got exposed to it then. I knew it was possible, that one could actually create their own stuff. I think we’ve kind of lost that comprehension that we can actually buy fabric and make things up ourselves.
And why shirts?
I couldn’t want to do it for every type of garment because I didn’t have the technical ability, so what seemed easy for me was to focus on shirting. So now that’s really what our business is about, looking at shirts, and how we can unpack a shirt. Why is a shirt a shirt, why has it got two arms? Why has it got a collar? Why has it got plackets? Why has it got side seams? What if we did it this way? We’ve done a lot of experiments, some have gone right, others have gone wrong. Each day we’re trying to break the rules, and each day we understand better why things are done a certain way.
Both menswear and womenswear?
We introduced womenswear about four years ago. Initially, because of our history, everyone perceived us to be strictly menswear. Women would see our shirts but they would assume that they were men’s shirts because of our label. So then for about two to three years we actually didn’t do any menswear at all, as a deliberate attempt to refocus our attention and address what we felt was an opportunity in ladieswear. In fact what you’ve seen in the last year is a rebirth of our menswear, and with that rebirth we’ve also widened our focus and we’ve been playing around with other aspects of men’s clothing like pants and jackets.
Where are you selling these shirts?
We have a distribution model where we have shirt affiliates, shirt ambassadors that come to us and buy at a discount based on the quantities they buy and they go on and sell for a mark up, effectively like a micro franchise. It’s been especially successful outside of South Africa in countries like Angola, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. We’ve also been fortunate enough to be associated with South African Fashion Week, through which we were invited as one of the eight designers to go into Edgars, and we’re still in Edgars today. In Cape Town, we also supply The Tailor Shop and Boaston Society, and we trade at the Watershed. In Joburg we’re in 27 Boxes, Melrose Arch, Space Man, and Menlyn.
How does the fashion business compare to banking?
As disparate as they sound, I find them to actually be very closely linked, in the sense that in banking it’s about trying to outdo the next person, be it better numbers, talking smarter, whatever it is. You are always trying to be one level above the next person, and fashion is used as a conduit for that as well. You go in your very smart crisp white shirt, your suit and your shoes; it becomes a staging post for a lot of that. I also ended up doing some consulting for Standard Bank, when they were working on their strategy for going into Africa. The mission I had was to roll out a specific technological trading platform into 17 African countries. The way I see it, that’s the same thing I’m trying to do now with Shirt & Co. If it can be done with technology and banking, then it can also be done with fashion. Ultimately what we are trying to do is become a pan African brand.
Images by Simon Deiner/SDR, Malibongwe Tyilo
Text by Malibongwe Tyilo