Walking into the converted structure that is home to Yeyethu Designer Studio is rather like walking into an old-fashioned sweet shop. You are greeted by a riot of colour – Shweshwe fabrics lie scattered across the worktops, patterns are pinned to the walls, shelves are packed with multi-coloured thread – all tempered by the quiet, industrious presence and friendly smiles of its two co-founders, Lerato Mtiya and Bulelwa Tito.
Bulelwa, bold and beautiful, is wearing one of her eye-catching creations and gets up to greet me. Lerato seems a little more reserved but has an easy smile and humble personality, surprising perhaps in an industry known for its flamboyance and big egos. The contrast between these two people, sitting at their machines, leads one to wonders how it came to be that they found their perfect match in the design world…
Police and Polony
Bulelwa Tito was born in Port Elizabeth, one of two siblings, to a single mum who chose to raise her children on her own, even though it was incredibly hard. Bulelwa recalls her mother “used to dress us up a lot. She has a taste in fashion and I used to be her doll”. But frills and fashion were never that important to Bulelwa. All she ever wanted from an early age was to run her own business. And that was what she did. Whilst still a child attending primary school, she used to sell sweets, “Cadburys and ice mints (smoothies)”, to her friends.
Perhaps inspired by her evident entrepreneurial spirit, one of her mother’s friends gave her R30 saying, “You have to decide what to do with this”. So Bulelwa bought two packets of “Uniqiyoyo” (Russian Polony) and a bottle of oil. After heating them up and coating them in oil, she then sold these irresistible hot treats at school, on credit, collecting payments the following day. From this simple model, Bulelwa created a business that supported her entire high school career, from Grade 8 to Grade 12. The profits from her modest enterprise covered not only her daily lunch and transport to school and back, but also fed into a new enterprise – that of being ‘mashonisa’, lending money to others in return for interest.
In the meantime, some 350km north of Port Elizabeth, Lerato Mtiya was born in Whittlesea near Queenstown, to a family with also one sibling, a sister. Just like Bulelwa before him, Lerato confesses that he never knew growing up that one day he would end up in the fashion industry. “All I ever wanted to be was a police officer! But the love of creativity was there inside of me. My grandmothers from both sides had Singer hand-wheel sewing machines, which they used to make clothes for themselves, and that is something which I believe has rubbed off on me”.
After his family relocated to Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, Lerato – now a teenager wondering what to do with his life – heard about a basic sewing project presented at a local community centre in the neighbourhood. “It got my attention and so I signed up and learned about needlework. I started to dream that maybe I could become a successful fashion designer, but I had absolutely no idea how that could ever would happen.” Lerato’s older sister introduced him to a local fashion designer, Lebohang Masoka, whom he then assisted by sewing matric dresses as well some of her clients’ outfits.
Not long after this, his sister (again) told him about a Dutch couple teaching design at the local NGO where she was working, Kuyasa Horizon Empowerment. The woman, Danielle Hooijimans, taught fashion while her partner, carpentry and woodwork. The goal of their programme “Zimela” was simple: to teach basic skills in order to offer new possibilities for making a living and to contribute to the local economy.
Danielle interviewed Lerato and he started training immediately. In fact, she was so impressed by Lerato that when, in 2012, a local fashion school – Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion Design – was searching for someone to sponsor towards a diploma, Danielle did not hesitate to recommend Lerato and, to his delight, he was chosen: “It was a miracle for me and I was overwhelmed and filled with joy”. He embarked on a full-time diploma in fashion design, including residency; all he had to do was to pay for was his registration fee and his own materials.
Weaving wonders in the workshop
Meanwhile, Lerato’s sister had not been the only one at Kuyasa taking note of what wonders were being woven in the workshop on the other side of the courtyard. The ever-entrepreneurial Bulelwa – now also living in Kayamandi – was attending at computer class at the community centre. Though she was not really interested in fashion, she was intrigued as to what they were making and why. She decided, on a whim, to sign up. “I honestly didn’t think it was going to work but, as soon as I started, I decided to stay”. The first course ran for six months and was very basic; then students were invited to complete advanced training for another six months, then going on to create fashion and accessories for sale to the local market and tourists.
When Danielle had to return to Holland in 2014, Bulelwa saw the opportunity to register her own business with a couple of her fellow students. It wasn’t long, however, before Bulelwa started to realise that she was taking on the lion’s share of the responsibility. She needed someone with whom she could share the load and whom she could trust…
Picking up the thread
By 2015, Lerato had graduated from the Academy and completed an internship and year’s employment at Farbe Designs. He started to work from home, taking orders for making dresses. Just two months later, he started looking for his own place. It was the perfect time to return to his roots and reunite with Bulelwa.
So in 2018, they co-founded Yeyethu Designer Studio (YDS) with the vision of creating a unique fashion brand, training people in the community and creating more job opportunities. Their fashion philosophy is simple: to focus on quality, not quantity. Every creation is tailor-made and unique. And, as every design is made by hand-operated machines, their designs are creating value for, and bring income to, gifted artisans in their community. There have been many who are drawn to this kind of craftsmanship and want to invest in it. Their main target market is women, between the ages of 20 and 50, but they also have a men’s casual range as well.
But it is a tough industry. Unlike the mass-manufacturing fashion industry, bespoke couture has a much smaller market. And one of YDS’s biggest challenge is receiving large orders, but then not having enough money to buy the materials. They are also limited by their machinery (the sewing machines they own do not have all the functionality required to create their designs) and human capacity (they would love to outsource their administration and marketing). COVID-19, and resulting lockdown regulations, has also affected the business badly, eliminating custom from tourism and walk-ins, preventing bespoke fittings and making new client relationships impossible to maintain.
Transforming trade in the face of Covid
However, it will come as no surprise that this intrepid duo have survived, transforming their business into a facemask production site, just two weeks after the nationwide lockdown was announced. This service has allowed the business to resume trading and also to serve the broader Stellenbosch community in the process. According to Lerato, “We reopened again [to] make masks because people desperately wanted them, so that was the only opportunity for us to start trading again”.
They also acknowledge that the support of local NGOs has been vital to helping them weather the storm. They have not only received emergency relief but also, prior to the pandemic, they took part in many small business workshops, gaining valuable advice on finance business plans and cash flow. Bulelwa strongly believes that small business must not try and grow alone, but rather in a group – “Hlumelo”.
When asked what other advice they would give to young entrepreneurs, Bulelwa says, “You must have a vision and also the heart to get to you through the hard times. Don’t give up!” Lerato agrees: “When you work hard, you get results. Umzingisi akanashwa!”
Bulelwa Tito – tel 073 511 2033
Lerato Mtiya – tel 073 002 2247
Kayamandi township is one of 13 communities in 9 towns that is part of Nedbank’s Proud of my Town initiative. The Building Business programme assists and equips entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and gain access to local supply chains. Discovering the immense potential and talent of our country’s local community entrepreneurs is an exciting journey for the Ranyaka team!