The wave of Pan-Africanism that has swept across the country has brought with it a rise in Afrocentric music, film and fashion, and also inspired creative entrepreneurs to run businesses that pay an ode to their cultures and traditions. 

The brand draws inspiration from the symbolism, depth, vibrancy and exuberance of Zulu beadwork.

Whilst relatively unknown, eYami Fashion and Lifestyle, a brand co-founded by GIBS MBAs, Nonhlanhla Nana Magubane and Zonke Mashile, is making inroads in the fashion space with its colourful garments and accessories. Magubane and Mashile didn’t have to look far for inspiration in 2017 when they co-founded the home-grown clothing brand that celebrates the art of Zulu beadwork. To set themselves apart from other African-influenced clothing brands that are mostly made using the readily available Ankara wax fabric, they began by first creating their own fabrics and then produced vibrant, stylish clothing targeted at the modern African woman who is a global citizen but is anchored in her traditions and roots. Their garments can be worn in the boardroom and on special occasions, Magubane explained.

“I am a Zulu girl, born and raised in the village of Esidumbini in northern KwaZulu-Natal. I was raised to take pride in my culture, in who I am, and in where I come from. My roots shaped who I am today,” said Magubane.

“I noticed the Afrocentric trend and spotted an opportunity in the market in 2016. I observed the desire of African consumers to embrace their cultures and identities through clothing items. I also realised that one of the biggest cultures in South Africa – the Zulu culture – did not have a representation in this trend. I shared my vision with Zonke whom I had met at GIBS in 2015 through the MBA programme and brought her in as a co-founder,” explained Magubane, adding that they sought to create a brand that resonated with South Africans and especially inspires the black middle class to be unapologetically authentic and embrace their origins.

“From the Nguni, eYami is a word that means ‘mine’ and the brand stands for proudly and unapologetically ‘owning your identity’ whilst allowing you the space to evolve. The brand draws inspiration from the symbolism, depth, vibrancy and exuberance of the Zulu beadwork. It embraces and celebrates where you come from, where you are and where you are headed. Our products are masterfully crafted using an infusion of plain fabrics and our signature prints that are designed by African women in corporate for other African women,” she said.

Once a booming trade, the outlook on the South African cotton textile industry paints a picture of a decimated industry that nosedived from 1995 as local manufacturing closed down owing to the influx of cheap Eastern imports. According to www.businesspartners.co.za, the local textile industry purged jobs from an estimated 181,000 in 2002 to about 80,000 in 2013. This phenomenon also meant that much-needed skills in the textile industry were lost. As the local textile industry tried to re-invent itself following the 2008 global recession, young fashion entrepreneurs were encouraged through various platforms, including local fashion weeks, to contribute to the industry and create vital jobs.

Armed with business skills, their passion for fashion and desire to create a legacy, the co-founders believed that their offering was unique. The launch came at the right time when most Africans were embracing their roots and patronising brands and products that were in line with their belief systems.

“I loved Zonke’s thinking and her desire to make a difference. I also needed someone with her skillset in finance to tell me if my dreams were profitable or not. I am grateful to the GIBS MBA for unlocking my entrepreneurial potential and for connecting me with Zonke,” explained Magubane.

Challenges

Unfortunately, like many companies, the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated eYami Fashion and Lifestyle, leading to job losses and necessitating a re-evaluation of their strategy. Sold via its e-commerce site, www.eyamilifestyle.com, business ground to a halt during the lockdown. The coronavirus travel restrictions dealt another blow with the closure of tourist destination stores, Made in SA, Out Of Africa, and Indaba, all which sell eYami Fashion and Lifestyle’s merchandise.

While they had been looking forward to growth and expansion of the brand in 2020, with plans to open their flagship store in September, Mashile said they were confident that their company would bounce back from the Covid-19 devastation and grow from strength to strength. Despite the setback, they paused but did not abandon their ambitious plans for their business.

They both hold fulltime corporate jobs while running eYami Fashion and Lifestyle as a side business. For now, their focus is on growing the brand until it can sustainably absorb them as employees, hopefully in three years, according to Magubane, a marketing executive who has worked for various multinationals. As the brand’s MD, she’s in charge of the daily operations, managing the team of three employees, looking after suppliers, sales and new launches. On the other hand, Mashile, a finance executive, oversees the brand’s financial portfolio, which includes day-to-day cash flow management, operating expenses and revenue management. Her daily obligations at eYami Fashion and Lifestyle are often executed late at night and over weekends.

“This venture presented a perfect opportunity to leverage my core skill whilst exploring an entirely new set of skills. I was sold on Nana’s passion and her extraordinary resolve to get any job done. I haven’t come across many people who will go to the lengths that she has gone to, to keep the dream alive. You never have to guess where you stand with her and her discipline. Her work ethic and focus are second to none – she is the poster child for the ‘never say die’ brigade,” said Mashile.

As the lockdown restrictions eased to resuscitate the battered economy, fashion entrepreneurs were left picking up the pieces after suffering devastating financial losses.

Going back to the drawing board and starting the business all over was not new to these determined entrepreneurs. In March 2019, they re-started eYami Fashion and Lifestyle from scratch after parting ways with two directors who joined them, one a fashion designer they had recruited to share the industry expertise they both lacked. When the business relationship had run its course, they gave her all the sewing machines, irons and tables belonging to the company to pay off their debt to her. To keep overheads low, they outsourced the production of garments until June this year, when the country moved to Level 3 lockdown. Since then, they have employed a fashion designer, a seamstress and a social media manager.

...she is the poster child for the ‘never say die’ brigade.

Future plans

Although their focus is on growing brand awareness on digital platforms and collaborating with celebrity influencers, they plan to open a flagship store that will sell ladieswear and menswear, swimwear, and bags by September 2021. The store will be followed by an interior design shop that sells homeware in 2022. 

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