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Local Sowetan youth culture brand has big plans for Africa and beyond

Everything that happens at Thesis is an extension of us: It comes naturally for us to eat that food; to be running, cycling and wearing the clothes: founder & business manager Wandile Zondo, creative director Galebowe Mahlatsi.

 

TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner we speak to creative director at Thesis Lifestyle brand, Galebowe Mahlatsi, and the brand’s business manager, Wandile Zondo.

Wandile, let me start with you. Tell us about the brand, Thesis Lifestyle: what is it all about?

WANDILE ZONDO: Thesis Lifestyle is a lifestyle brand that was started in 2005 to illustrate a new point of view about the youth culture in Soweto. We have a brand that is basically divided into four quadrants, which is the retail space, the clothing, the social impact – which is running and cycling – and we also have an events side. 

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TUMISANG NDLOVU: Now, Galebowe, take us through how the brand went from just events to a clothing range, to a restaurant and cycling and the running? As a creative director, how do you put all of this into one and still make it an exciting brand?

GALEBOWE MAHLATSI: I guess the most important part is creating one design language and fostering the ethos of the business. It’s more about defining yourself and illustrating a different point of view about the township. The business is primarily based in the township, our office is there in Soweto at our store and then we’ve got another store in Kagiso, which is in the west of Johannesburg.

The business essentially started as a clothing business; then… we got our own shop, so naturally you want to own the whole channel. Then as a way to boost sales, but also create a platform for artists, we did events. Then after going through some problems on the eventing side, from a bylaw perspective, we went into running.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: How has the brand been received so far from your perspective, Wandile? The Thesis brand is everywhere: if you don’t have a clothing item from there or you have never eaten there, you are not living in Joburg.

WANDILE ZONDO: Yes that’s true. I think like any other business we started slowly; it’s been about 11 years in existence now. I think the first five years were all about survival, [as] with any new business you’ve got to get through that phase. People are not familiar [with the brand], we had to make sure that we put [the] word out there, we do things, we market our brand and also just not giving up – staying in the game and playing the game, surviving all those years. So I think that’s what we’ve done, is just keep on working hard and try to put the word out there to the people.

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TUMISANG NDLOVU: Galebowe, can you take us through how you draw people in? Especially where Thesis is a lifestyle brand and that is a core importance to have those two in that line basically, and the cycling and the running and the type of food that the restaurant sells – it is non-greasy, it is very healthy, you get stuff that you would think you would get in a Rosebank market. How did you then conceptualise that to sell to a market that is really not too familiar with that type of lifestyle?

GALEBOWE MAHLATSI: I guess the most important part is that everything that happens at Thesis is an extension of Wandile and I. It comes naturally for us to eat that food; it comes naturally to us to be running, to be cycling, to be wearing the clothes. So what we found from the eventing side was that actually there are a lot of people who are like us, so we thought let’s keep one person close to us and then the word will trickle out. Word of mouth has been big to us. Luckily enough we don’t have a PR company, even though we would like one, but we’ve been privileged to have been given various opportunities from working with different brands that help amplify Thesis the brand and what we do, and just putting us out there.

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TUMISANG NDLOVU: That’s amazing and it’s a very good story to tell, but have there been any challenges that you guys have faced, Wandile?

WANDILE ZONDO: Wow, challenges. As entrepreneurs it’s part of our daily lives to have challenges and I think what makes you a better entrepreneur is to overcome those challenges. I think the first challenge that any business goes through during the first stages is funding and then from funding it moves to are you getting enough customers. I think you just learn your way along the way and the struggles just never go away, because we are also not satisfied with where we are. We are striving to become better people and grow the brand. With that comes a lot of challenges, so it also gives us an opportunity to break down all the walls that are trying to put us in one space.

I think now the challenge has always been that, trying to get funding to grow your business, trying to grow your customer base. I think the challenges are still the same but it’s just that now they are different as you grow.

The challenge now is how do you make sure that we reach out to more people in terms of the brand moving out of just Joburg? How do you make sure that we are in all the metros in Gauteng….? With that will come a challenge of getting more customers in those locations.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: It’s a beautiful challenge.

WANDILE ZONDO: Yes, it is, but I think those kinds of challenges come with overcoming the first problems when you start in business. So, ja, I think they will never go away – those challenges in business just don’t go away and you just become happy as you grow the brand. You reach your targets and I think that’s what it is: we want to grow the brand and we actually want more challenges.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: With what Wandile has just said, Galebowe, what highlights stand out for you in this journey? What has been the biggest ‘aha’ moment?

GALEBOWE MAHLATSI: There are too many but I wouldn’t know if they are that big. But I remember last year we did an interview that we actually forgot about, because it took so long for people to actually see it. I think it took about six months and then it was broadcast on SABC 1 and that was the best PR you can ever get. But I think we were together in a very random place and we kept getting calls and SMSes from people saying we can see you on TV and this is a station that has four million-plus people watching and that was a really proud moment. But also doing collaborations with multi-national brands – Nike, Adidas, Red Bull, Coca-Cola – that’s also a highlight, because it’s not everyone who gets that opportunity to be working with those brands and especially at a level where what we say people can actually [hear].

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TUMISANG NDLOVU: Wandile, where to for Thesis Lifestyle?

WANDILE ZONDO: I think it’s still basic. Like I just said, we want to grow the brand; we want to tap into more metros. As I said before, the challenge was to grow into other metros outside of Joburg – so probably Tshwane, Ekurhuleni – that’s probably five-year growth, or even shorter. But from that it’s to spread nationally. From national it will be to spread into Africa, because I personally believe that Africa is the next frontier of growth. We can’t wait for Europeans or Asians to tap into that because the East giant is always tapping into [places] and we also need to tap into the East because clothes are just a basic commodity, no one leaves their home naked. We just need to tap into Africa and sell more clothes, and make the young kids in Africa look cool, so that they can afford cool – that’s what we stand for.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Great stuff. Lastly Galebowe, where can people find you, follow the brand and experience it? Where are you based? Give us the direct location?

GALEBOWE MAHLATSI: Our first store, which is the main store, is 173 Machaba Drive, Mofolo Village, Soweto. We are ten minutes away from Vilakazi Street. Then the second store in Kagiso is 1387 Sedumedi Street, Kagiso 2, Krugersdorp. It’s a black container, you won’t miss it. Our website is www.thesis.co.za email is info@thesis.co.za Then across all the social networks it’s @Thesis_Lifestyle, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

TUMISANG NDLOVU: Wonderful, it’s been a great pleasure to host you guys. That was Galebowe Mahlatsi, the creative director at Thesis Lifestyle, and the brand’s business manager, Wandile Zondo, in this week’s SME Corner.

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