Jonathan Katz, founder and managing director of Earthchild Clothing Group, is the first to admit that the clothing industry is not for the fainthearted. He should know, having entered the business with what he describes as ‘zero knowledge’ of the industry. “It’s expensive, susceptible to general economics and highly competitive,” he says. Cheap Asian imports, the influx of big-name labels and the global recession haven’t made things any easier for the local fashion market.
These hurdles make the success of the Earthaddict and Earthchild clothing brands all the more impressive. With 20 stores operating in some of South Africa’s most exclusive retail shopping centres, the brands have secured their place in the niche aspirational fashion market – no mean feat for a local fashion label. Katz’s recipe for success includes tenacity, true differentiation, a single minded focus on building a niche brand and the ability to adapt global lessons to a local business.
Never give up
In the late 90s Katz was selling the company’s clothing range from a spare room at home, but demand from word-of-mouth customers was growing and the business needed to take its first leap into acquiring retail space. “Right from the word go I wanted this to be a niche fashion brand, so when it came to getting a store, it was critical that we were in the right retail centre.
The V&A Waterfront was the perfect position,” he explains. Perfect it may have been but accessible it was not. With only 100 stores available and 900 applicants, among them some of the big name international fashion labels, the Earthchild Clothing Group’s chance of securing a spot were slim. “We were unknown without any proof of concept, but I wanted that store,” Katz relates. He set about getting it through pure perseverance. “I called the gentleman in charge of leasing and I just about harassed him into seeing me.
I said to him, ‘Just give me ten minutes’ and eventually he caved and gave me a meeting slot three weeks down the line,” he says. The first flagship store opened in 1997, with Katz repeating the performance in securing a second store in the exclusive Hyde Park Shopping Centre within six months.
Building a niche brand through true differentiation
But tenacity wasn’t the only reason the brand got off to a flying start. Katz’s vision to create an aspirational niche fashion label has been behind all of the company’s best decisions. “I believe we got the store at the V&A Waterfront, and the later one in Hyde Park, because people saw something different in the brand. I knew that to make it in the industry, there would have to be something more to our clothing than just fashion appeal.
In order to build a niche brand, you have to create something that’s aspirational,” he says. The brand’s identity is founded on easy-to-wear clothing made from superior fabrics, with inspiration drawn from the natural fibres and tones of the earth.
A large percentage of the clothes are made from organic cotton and the company was well ahead of the market in establishing itself as a luxury brand that cares about the planet.
In 2006 the company founded the Earthchild Project, an NGO that focuses on the education and well-being of children from historically disadvantaged groups, further cementing its standing as a responsible brand with a social conscience and imbuing the brand with additional value.
Together, Earthaddict and Earthchild cater to three generations, from newborns to 60-plus-year-olds, giving the brand a wide market scope. Drawing on global lessons Katz has also learned from the lessons of others in the global fashion industry.
At one time, the company owned the full design, manufacture and retail value chain, employing 80 seamstresses in a factory. As Katz points out, however, this is a hefty undertaking for a small business. “Clothing design, clothing manufacture and clothing retail are all very specific and come with their own requirements and challenges,” he says.
An experiment outsourcing the manufacture of the clothing to a local
concern turned out to be a disaster. “We were a small fish in their big pond and didn’t get the attention and service that we needed,” he explains. It was only when he was invited to a fashion trade show in Las Vegas that he started to understand the concept of global outsourcing. “However, we’ve always been proudly local so I wanted to keep everything in Africa,” he says.
His solution lay in outsourcing manufacture to Mauritius and Madagascar, both of which are considered part of the African continent. The arrangement is working well, although Katz points out that it’s still important to control the quality in the supply chain.
In spite of the brands’ success, he’s cautious about growing too quickly. “I think it‘s a mistake to open too many stores at once. You need to be careful about diluting the brand offering,” he says. To this end he’s highly selective about which locations he’ll sign the brands to. “The right retail centre is not enough – it has to be the right store in the right location within the right retail centre,” he explains.
And although the company receives plenty of enquiries from people wanting to open stores abroad, Katz is just as selective on this front. “We’ve got one proof of concept store in Canada but we’ll enter the international market when the time is right,” he says, outlining the company’s plans to establish a critical mass of ten to fifteen stores in a single territory before further expansion.
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