On Starting A African Inspired Urban Fashion Brand Right After Graduating
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
August of 2015. A year in which I, Cotilda Makhumula-Nkhoma the designer was concluding a Master’s degree in Future Design and began a 2-year program of business enterprise at Teesside University. Through this program known as FUEL, business mentoring, workshops and funding were made possible in supporting COTILDA a recent graduate to kick start an online clothing business.
Registered as COTILDA’S FASHION LIMITED but trading as COTILDA.COM, focusing on ‘African Inspired Fashion for Urban Taste.’ Aimed at 21-35 urban young males and centered on embracing one’s culture through clothing; whilst being mindful of environmental impacts by purchasing clothing only when there is a need through bespoke and limited edition offers.
Being a new clothing brand that was transitioning from a bespoke line into ready-to-wear limited items a year under half into the business, we were looking for an experienced manufacturer that could produce small quantities, achieve technical finishing whilst producing high-quality products at affordable prices. Which is how we came across Bryan, a manufacturer based in Singapore that allowed us to produce shirts, hoodies, and caps to which we are currently retailing on our online website.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Originally from Malawi in South-Eastern Africa, my sister and I helped our mother create wedding accessories for family and friends. However, it was not until 2001 at age 9 when my family and I relocated to the United Kingdom in Middlesbrough. We had to adapt to a different culture and blend in. This is where the inspiration of being of two cultures and two homes came to mind. #MalawiToMiddlesbrough
When you relocate to any area, you want to become part of the culture and not an outsider. In other words, you want to belong. But you do not want to lose who you are, your roots. Therefore, COTILDA is aimed at encouraging people to embrace who they are, not just blend in, but to create their own style, an identity that embraces culture and that is appealing to both African and Western markets.
From a young age, assisting our mother with wedding accessories is what got me interested in making clothing, but I did not pay much attention to this until I took textiles in school and creative fashion and enterprise in university. I then took a year out of studying to travel by working as an inventory stock taker, before gaining a Master’s Degree in Future design in 2015. Working as an inventory stock taker for such stores like Zara, Ralph Lauren, Pull and Bear added to my desire of creating my own clothing brand. Supported by Teesside University after graduating helped my business idea become a reality.
Through their support, I was invited to do talks to other students who had the desire of owning their own business. I also got the opportunity to run my own workshop through Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), events which encouraged me to push through with the business, as it was not only encouraging others but it was allowing me to share skills whilst helping others to create their own style and identity through clothing. The online research that I conducted of competitors, speaking with other businesses, friends, helped to validate the ideas/products. Parental support including self-funding assisted in financing business developments.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When it comes to the design process sometimes the design ideas come first and other times the fabric. With regards to the print, we collaborated with a print designer which was applied to our final designs. We then shared our completed technical packs with our manufacturer Bryden. Which we came across through online research. It took one to two samples of the styles before we approved our designs for the main production. As we looked at the quality of finishing, design cut and print. Deposits needed to be cleared before fabric sourcing, pattern work could be completed by Bryden. We needed to cross-check measurements and samples to be tried on the model before the final approval of production could be given. The process took roughly 2-6 weeks sampling and 3 months for the main production. Full payment also needed to be made before goods could be shipped to you.
Once the sample and production were completed, we would then book models to take promotional images for the website, social media and other advertisements that may have been required for our archive. Since Bryden also offered the fully factored service, they completed the photography on our behalf. This was very helpful when we had short deadlines.
Do your best to create a good honest relationship with your customers, staff as after all business is for people and takes time to build.
We then liaised with our website developers to upload the images and content before the launch of our products and marketing our products through our social platform, trade shows, word of mouth and magazine features. With regards to the upkeep of the website, models, manufacturing costs were covered with help from my parents. Website development assisted from the University through the fuel program.
Work with Bryden was a straightforward process, from the first point of contact they responded to us in a timely manner, skyping with them and talking through the design and project, made us at ease and gave us an insight of what working with them would be like. The sample that was also produced before manufacturing was of a good standard and which improved further within the second project, as they had a better understanding of the outcome we had envisioned. Their website also did well in explaining what they do and what we were looking for, which was the fully factored production.
If there were technical challenges, they would communicate with us immediately to get an ok in order to proceed, (which was made easier through their Teambition platform) they would explain and suggest alternatives instead of writing off our ideas. Most importantly they seemed like people who care greatly on building customer relationships than making quick funds. They took our project seriously despite being a new clothing brand to the market, which in the end made them the prime choice of the manufacturer to work with. They took care of the process from sourcing, packaging which made the funds we had to spend more cost-efficient.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Through the University’s Fuel program, a lot of work was done to evaluate what goals the business desired to grow. One area is the website to have more of an international reach and a customizable section on the website, which took a back seat to provide the ready-to-wear line. The other being to have reliable and flexible manufacture.
The business began as a bespoke line where we designed and produced the clothing, we outsourced seamstresses for further support and skills. After a year, this process did not seem profitable for the amount of work that was being put in. We had also failed to proceed with the customizable section on the website, as it required us to continue with production which we could not maintain and as we did not find a manufacturer that could support this service. We had then decided to launch a ready-to-wear section of limited products in order to help generate funds to be able to run the business.
I love what I was doing, but if I am being honest, as soon as I registered Cotilda.com as a business, all I felt was pressure and stress, my creations and inspiration were not at the level I knew I had, it all became basic design and money focused. I could not merge the business and fashion side. This was while I was in the Launchpad, which was the best place for me at the time, it helped shape me through mentorship, which is one thing you need in this thing called business!
Asking for help and advice is great, it is another form of learning from mistakes and achievements. However, what happens to others does not mean it will also happen to you.
I felt people were not taking me seriously and yes there were tears along the way. So, what did I do? Rushed and applied me into African Fashion Week London of course! As you do.
People talk about having capital, savings, but there was none of that, what money I had would run through my account like it wasn’t even there, my parents continuously reminding me, you are investing it will come. And yes, I am still investing in the business just over 4 years later.
Aside from my parents, the university and other friends and family have been a huge support to me. The first few years were based on customer awareness of the brand and it was really when we attended trade shows that we would see purchases being made. To be honest the business is seasonal, at times there is no business, while other times it can pick up slightly. However, this also depends on how much marketing is being invested in the products/business. So it is a good idea to have a second form of income through a second/part-time job.
When I think about it, there are a few people who have mentored me, my parents, sister, friends, Steve Dougan and other businesses, staff, mentors within the Launchpad. It is hard not to have been impacted by each individual that I met. Tony Sheldon is the first person who visually impacted Cotilda.com, as he created plenty of graphics that visually sold my brand to be bigger than it was, but that we hope it to be long term. We also asked friends to model, created our own photography, did many of the things on our own to save costs. Building relationships with people who had various skills that we needed, be it sewing, marketing accounts, legal early on was what helped kick start the business as who you know also can help keep costs down.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We found trade shows worked well for us as an offline tool. Since we no longer have a brick and water office, we find attending trade shows is beneficial for us, as this is what drives people/traffic to our website. As some customers like to see and feel what they are purchasing, before making the actual purchase. However, more funds are continuously required to attend more trade shows and this is hard to maintain when the business is not generating enough income from month to month.
I have found being selective on which shows one should attend is important, the reason being to target the right audience, to get your money’s worth, and learn from other’s experience and to network. Only when people make the face to face connection with the brand, they then proceed to connect with the brand online. This is why both online and offline presence is important to us.
Magazine advertisement also helped us hugely, the feature in British Vogue in January and February 2018 meant people started to notice us and take us seriously. I also tried Facebook advertisement but did not see much benefit as it did not help with sales however, it helped with likes and brand awareness. Social media is what we promote most, but things could be better promoted/managed as we no longer have our previous marketing team to assist due to funds. We still continue this as this is where customers can find out what is happening with the brand. Trade Show image Africa Fashion Week London 2016.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I can honestly say the last 4 years have been about building brand awareness, therefore there has not been much profit made rather more on expenditure. The business is also seasonal, meaning it is not consistent.
Now that I no longer have an office since 2018, it is merely research, design, and sending of technical packs to be produced, which makes things easier as I only have to monitor the progress and focus on the sales. I would like the business to be at a point that I can hire various experienced skills for marketing, salespeople, a design team in these areas. But only when there are enough funds to maintain this. The short term goal is to have African Inspired Clothing that is appealing to both the African and Western markets within the UK; and then internationally.
At present things have slowed down slightly, we are now focusing more on our online presence and to continue offering limited edition products and smaller quantities. When we are in a better financial position we would like to build more on trade shows. Our aim now is to focus on our design services. Where we can provide customers with technical design packs. Ideally, we would like to design and produce designer products for our customers. Given that we can find a manufacturer that can accommodate bespoke designs as well as produce smaller quantities of 10, 20, 80 and no more than 100 pieces and only where there is customer demand. We want to be able to provide customers designer pieces that are specially made for the individual, but being able to control our environmental footprint in the process.
Within the 4 years, I have also thought hard about closing the business as the passion has lessened throughout the years due to the challenges, but often I think about the people who have supported me and the funds that I am still owing. This keeps me going, to find a better way of improving things as people want different things, but you cannot cater to all, just the fair few and to do that well.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Not all things work like clockwork, but taking risks is something good. If I did not register for Africa Fashion Week London in 2016, people may not have started to pay attention to us, we may not have partnered up with the web developer that we are currently working with, we may not have come across Bryden and we may not have been approached by British Vogue, these were a few highlights of 4 years in business. At the same time, don’t be easily led, learn to pace yourself and your business. Be selective on who’s advice you take on, as advice shared will always seem as ‘everybody knows best,’ in the end you can lose money and lessen the passion for your work. You cannot please everyone, so don’t try to. Do something you know you can do, and do it well.
What began as a full-time venture is now a side job, the family business has now taken over, a healthcare business which is completely different from the areas I have studied in. But I am getting to learn more about business and at times am getting ideas on how I could polish up Cotilda.com. So having a side job is not a bad idea in case things don’t work out. Make sure you are always learning, ask questions or listen even if you don’t know what exactly you want to ask. Ask for expertise because opportunities are also missed from what you don’t know.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our website is the central point for all our sales, blogs, and contact with our customers. Including our social media platforms of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. As digital marketing is what is popular these days and it is how we can target and market to our young audience.
People talk about other good platforms but to be honest, I got the same speech when I was moving from my previous Wix website to the Woocommerce platform. I have had funding to build a site that I am currently on and I am sure there is potential to improve it. Sometimes it is about bettering what you currently have than the latest trend.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
There are two books I am trying to get through, the first being The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Sewn Product Manufacturing by Kathleen Fasanella and second, How To Set Up and Run A Fashion Label by Toby Meadows. I was attracted to these two books as it is always good to find out how others overcome their challenges in an industry that you are continuously learning, as long term success does not come overnight.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Jumping into things sometimes can be the best thing you can do and others the worst. Nevertheless, you have to work this out for yourself and learn more in the process.
Right, ok, so I have a business, I used to speak about owning my own business during my studies but never thought in 2015 straight after graduating in Future Design at Teesside University, Middlesbrough it would become a reality.
I can say now I rushed into it, at the same time if I knew now what I didn’t know then, I would not have started the business, so either way, I am glad it turned out the way it has as it helped me experience some great highlights as taking part in Africa Fashion Week London 2016, ITV local TV news channel 2016 and British Vogue 2018 without really having had a solid profit.
Do your best to create a good honest relationship with your customers, staff as after all business is for people and takes time to build. The saying about not putting your eggs in one basket, there is truth to this as you don’t know what will work and what won't, so you have to keep persistent, learning, and far from distractions.
Asking for help and advice is great, it is another form of learning from mistakes and achievements. However, what happens to others does not mean it will also happen to you. Taking on too much advice can fill you with self-doubt if you are not confident with your ideas. Adapt to change and grow, but not to the extent that your vision becomes unrecognizable from what you first envisioned or from the problem you were aiming to solve in order to please everyone.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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