This is favourite South African designer success story.
Friday, April 16, 2010
On the day I’m scheduled to interview designers Gina and Caren Waldman of Two, I’m on time, but there’s a major strike in town so it will be very difficult for me to get to their New Doornfontein studio and office. Had I been interviewing other designers, I probably would have been nervous to request a change of venue at the last minute but with these two, it was all arranged in seconds of friendly yeses and of courses. That’s the first thing I really like about both of them: they are really approachable.
Unfortunately, I didn’t always feel this way about them. When I first came across the Two label in Cape Town in 2006, I thought their clothes were too basic and boring. Of course I did, I worked for a magazine and we only wanted fashiony clothes for our fashion shoots. I then went to their Fashion show at SAFW in 2007 and was only mildly impressed at their commercial range, because my 22 year old self thought that being a good designer was only about creating high fashion and because, in retrospect, I was way too big for my boots. Needless to say I wasn’t alone in my misguided convictions, there are still some fashion editors and stylists who want them to be something they are not.
What Caren and Gina Waldman are, are businesswomen who are probably among the top earners in this industry because they work smart and don’t have huge designer egos and personas to maintain. Maybe it’s because they didn’t study fashion (we know what that can do to nice people), and that's the second thing I like about them. Caren, the older of the two, has a degree in Graphic Design from the Parsons School of Design in New York and Gina has an MA in Fine Arts from Wits. Although Caren has been consumed by her love of fashion since she was a child, their fashion initiation wasn’t planned. It started with a pair of panties that they made and gave to their friends as gifts (different panties obviously). The panties were such a hit that they started getting orders for more, then vests to go with the panties and over the next two years, after making a R2000 investment on their little under-things business, they were working on Two full time, using their parents’ lounge as their base.
Five years later, they have a studio that doubles as a CMT in town and their range has grown to include everything from dresses, to jackets to pants that are available in 56 stores all over South Africa and Namibia. In case you didn’t get that, they stock fifty-six stores. That’s production of up to 1200 units per garment every month.
Gina and Caren Waldman at this year's Buyers and Media Networking sessions during SA Fashion Week.
Here’s how they did it:
1. They are organised and use teams
“You need teams of people to put a label together. The SA Fashion Week team has been amazing in helping us build our business over the years”, says Caren. They are still getting orders from their Winter 2010 collection which they showed at SAFW in October last year – orders that are currently sitting at R960 000 in value, though it sounds better if I say, orders that are almost R1 Million in value. They haven’t delivered the stock yet because they are still administering the process of producing those outputs at their three CMTs but they will be ready before winter.
So who does what? When it comes to creating the clothes, Gina does the research on international magazines and websites and is in charge of designing the clothes with consultation from Caren, who does all the graphics from their labels to their website. Once they’ve finalised designs, they give them to their patternmaker and the rest is done at the CMT. They leave production to the CMTs while they focus on the following:
Graphics and Brand Identity
Collections – money from stockists
Research and Design
As you can see from this structural set up, the focus is more on the business and not so much on the intricacy of the clothing. Of course all designers are different and some like to be hands on with the production, but many that do this focus too much on that element and not what’s going to sell the clothing. Caren and Gina spend 4 days of the week doing Two related stuff, and of those days, only one is spent in their office. They spend the rest of the time oiling the system they’ve created and even more time marketing Two to shops, not so much consumers surprisingly. I wish I could scan and show you the order form they use for all their stores – a picture of each garment appears on the sheet including ways to wear it and which of their other garments it goes with, making life for the stockists as easy as possible.
2. They started small and took their time
Two made panties and vests for two years before they made tops and trousers. That was enough time for them to learn about the business of fashion and for their brand to grow. “If you start off with a whole collection, you’ll bomb”, they both say at the same time. A lot of designers may not agree with this but I think the essence of what they are saying is that it’s important to start small, by producing a few products until you have perfected them, instead of making a lot and having a hard time selling the clothes. They started with consignment at 4 shops and they didn’t make a lot of money in the beginning, but 5 years later, they make money from the few stockists that they have consignment deals with but the majority of their stockists buy their stock from them. “So this is why you haven’t opened a shop yet?” I ask. Gina shoots back, “why should we when this is working so well for us?”. A lot of designers rush to open stores and get stuck with expensive rent and not enough profit, but this is not to say that the Two method works for everyone. The most important thing is accessibility. Consignment sucks in the beginning, but that’s how people get to know your brand. Caren confirms the point about brand accessibility: “The other day", she says, "we saw a woman over 70 wearing one of our tops and we were happy, but wondered which one of our stockists she bought it from”.
3. They are easy to communicate with
When I organised a trunk sale at Glamour Mechanics last year, Two was one of the participating labels. They always picked up their phones when I called, responded to emails immediately, returned whatever forms needed to be returned on time – could that be the reason why they made the most money that day? We can’t always pick up our phones or get to our emails on time but its much easier to deal with someone who throws the ball back in your court every time you serve it to them and these girls take communication very seriously. Both have BlackBerry’s so they can constantly be in touch with stockists, customers and people like me, who enjoy dealing with them because it’s easy. They also say having good terms and conditions with their stockists is part of their success with them, “We have a returns policy, give the stores 30 days to make payments and we always make sure we deliver on time”.
4. They have no Egos.
This is a bit of a touch-and-go subject, because it’s subjective really. But to be honest, a lot of people, not just designers in this industry have egos. What’s important with these two is that they have not let their success get to their heads. They may not be featured in top magazines and initially they were not happy with the lack of coverage, but I had to remind them that their bread is buttered thickly on both sides and that some of the “fabulous” designers featured in top magazines with the amazing clothes, aren’t exactly rolling in dough.
What I’ve learned from talking to Two is that your talent as a designer should be balanced by good business sense and vice versa. Every excellent designer should have a left brain partner – Marc Jacobs has Robert Duffy and Vivienne Westwood had Malcom McClaren at the beginning. It’s even better if both designers are versatile and can handle admin and the creative.
I've always preached this of course, but this was the first time I've ever really seen its excellence face to face. The girls' latest venture will be stocking a major retailer. A national retailer has shown some interested in their clothing (please note, the retailer called them), in fact they are already talking to it. Clue: it's not Woolies or Edgars or Truworths! I'm so proud of them and I hope other designers learn from these two, I'm pretty sure I could convince them to give classes on making order forms.
Pic sources: Natalie Payne via SA Fashion Week's Facebook Page.
For more information on these Two, visit their website www.twotwo.co.za