Two designers creating a different business model for their fashion house

By Emilie Gambade 18 May 2020

Illustrative image by Leila Dougan and Malibongwe Tyilo | sources: Unsplash / Pxhere / pngwave / pinclipart / pngguru / pngwave / EPA/Kim Ludbrook

The pandemic has and is still affecting all aspects of life and the world of design, art, and culture is no exception. In this series, we talk to artists, creatives, designers and musicians about their work and what inspires them during these surreal times.

In 2014, South African designers Malcolm KLûK and Christiaan Gabriel Du Toit moved into what is now the high-end fashion label’s, KlûK CGDT, boutique on Bree street, a tastefully decorated concept store where the collections – ready-to-wear, couture and bridal – stand along Cape Cobra bags, sleek, modern and exquisite leather pieces that go perfectly paired with the clothes displayed.

The boutique, that spreads over a few floors, seems to be made for dress-up games and movie replays (where are you, Julia Roberts?). It’s both warm and charming: the smile welcoming guests at the entrance, the walls’ rose poudré, the fitted mirrors, the twirling staircase and of course, the garments. Everywhere ostrich feathers, clashes of bright and bold patterns, silk, sequins, scarlet and sateen, and golds that come together demanding playfulness and light-heartedness.

“We are not scared of colour or pattern, we love unusual fabric and spend spare time on fabric Safari’s, seeking uniqueness”, they say.

That same year, the duo of designers presented six ready-to-wear collections, a tour-de-force in a still fragile – and emerging – local fashion industry. Fast-forward to 2019, and KlûK and Du Toit have established a brand known for its joyful sophistication, been awarded three times African designers of the year, presented their collections on both local and international runways and stretched their flair and skills beyond fashion to property development.

Now, with the store and their studio closed, they have had to adapt and work differently, almost creating “a different business model”.

“Instead of having the [seamstresses] come in to work, they are empowered to work in their own time, at their own pace and get remunerated accordingly; essentially, they are the own bosses of a micro business. The more work finished to our standard, the more money they earn”.

Yet, such a shift requires some adjustments and ironing out. “Usually I am on hand to sort out any decisions or problem-solving that need to be made about design or finish”, explains KLûK.

“We also need to coordinate much more carefully and have less room to experiment, but nothing is impossible. The ladies have their own machines which we supplement and we supply all the raw materials and cut work.”

This will allow the designers to use the space at the studio and possibly rent it out “for additional income” or for the brand’s own expansion.

“We need to look at the world with new eyes, we cannot continue as we have in the past. This may be a good thing, too. In terms of design, ‘the packaging’ sometimes got in the way of creativity. Big brands market us to death to buy into their bottom line. Now we have to look at [buying] more local”, he adds.

“I think this will be our status quo: design will flourish, personal expression is the new ‘it bag’ to carry because we understand the fragile environment we live in much clearer now. We cannot travel as much and will need to create new environments to live within, to be inspired, to move forward.

“Luxury will be closer to us, in our personal expression, in the decisions we make and the intimacy we allow others. It’s funny that, [for us] this process started much further back, when we moved out of our house to redevelop the property. We had to edit and make decisions on what is important to us to have around, what we had to keep and what we wanted to keep. It is the most cathartic experience – to let go. The same happened in business; we did what was taught to be right and lived exhausted, chasing ‘the dream’ we didn’t want until we stopped and changed and edited and redesigned our lives to suit us,” says KLûK.

During lockdown, the designers tasked artist and gallerist Mareli Esterhuizen “to play with our unfinished collection”. “We wanted a woman’s perspective of the range. To see what she responded to, to see what happens under these circumstances creatively. We always say that the person wearing the clothes makes the outfit. It is meant as a compliment to the personality that changes an inanimate object into a story.”

The result? Two images that break away from the usual glossy fashion spreads found in magazines in the pre-lockdown era. Both the sign of an old-world gone to ashes and the celebration of underdone and raw style – yet more accessible – instead of polished images, the pictures are a symbol of the contrasted times we live in.

Image courtesy of Malcolm Klûk
Image courtesy of Malcolm Klûk

“I once read that a designer’s job never stops because we are continually looking at the world and recreating it in our minds. It isn’t about designing dresses or buildings or products, it’s about why we use those products and how we use those buildings and how we relate to those dresses.” And that creative process can shift, change and morph but it will never stop. DM/ML 

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