When we find something worth talking about, you know we always give you the deets on it. Our recent find is the fashion brand nje. We love how their clothes are extremely versatile and comfortable. We had a chat with the founders of the brand Bonolo Zwane and Mark Banele Graham.
Where does your love for fashion as you duo from?
As a duo our love for fashion and styling unique pieces came from our parents. On both sides our mother and father were lovers of quality, style and always looking their best. Banele can specifically recall that his mom was very particular about how she dressed him up for nursery and Sunday school.
Bonolo remembers how her maternal grandmother who raised her was well known in Atteridgeville for her immaculate and unique dress sense from the classrooms she taught at, to church and tending to her garden in beautiful long skater dresses, with playful floral prints and fun derby hats!
Why the name Nje?
The South African IsiZulu word 'nje' broadly meaning “just as is” or “just as you are" embodies the diversity, depth and versatility of our self-made clothing in a minimalist and easy stride. This versatility expresses ours and our shoppers' personal life(and)style choices, just as we are!
The unmistakable pigeon reference in our logo was ultimately the perfect symbolic expression of this - a bird found in multiple and diverse locations across the world, but whose from and existence we hardly ever question no matter where we are. It just is, nje!
What do you think of South African fashion right now?
There have been great strides in our fashion industry by a variety of fashion brands doing amazing work in igniting even greater appetite for locally produced brands.
Across our borders, locally produced brands continue to gain prominence internationally with some designers setting international trends. This is evident in one or two reported cases of prominent international brands caught out on copyrights infringements.
At nje we have in particular witnessed the growth in conscious shoppers - shoppers who are intentional about increasing their household spend towards South African made goods and locally rendered services. The more this trend persists, the more room emerging local fashion brands have to offer competitive pricing in response to a larger scale that offers opportunities for greater production efficiencies.
Credit should go to our local manufacturers and retailers for adopting state-of-the-art technology from their making to retailing processes. At nje we’ve been quite measured about the balance between our early adoption of these and retention of our staff.
Finally, the Covid 19 pandemic has shifted business practice in general. We’ve also witnessed almost a pedantic, last-minute panic rush by brick-and-mortar based (apparel) brands to retail online. In our case we’ve had to review our garment design and fabric choices as the majority of our shoppers moved from working in office buildings to working at home.
Could you tell us more about your brand. What is it about, who are your clientele?
'nje' is a South African, black, female-owned manufacturer and retailer of versatile and exceptional quality apparel with a silent punch!
We sell clothing for women, men and children as ready-to-wear. This means the clothing is available then and there for shoppers to buy through our easy-to-shop, online store www.nje.co.za or from our Cape Town based studio.
All our fabrics are locally sourced and our garments assembled by our own skilled artisans. In periods of higher demand we outsource manageable volumes to highly skilled black, female-run manufacturers located on the outskirts of the main economic nodes of Cape Town.
In our three years of existence we have become known for creating versatile pieces that appeal to a multi-dimensional, layered shopper with diverse taste and a penchant for high quality of product and service.
Shoppers identity us by exceptional workmanship of unique and minimalist luxury, phenomenal fits, versatile garments with a wide range of wear-ability, as well as what they describe as extraordinary service with a personal touch. Many have expressed that the clothing feels as if it were made just for them, and that they have a deep sense of pride and heritage when wearing our clothes.
About 90% of our consistent shoppers are black Africans with just over two thirds of them female. The majority are ladies and gents at middle to executive level professionals in the financial services sector with media and medical professionals a close second. Roughly 55% work and live in the northern parts of Gauteng while the rest are spread across the Western and Eastern Cape, Durban and Mpumalanga.
Creatives across the board have their own signatures, so what is yours and what sets you apart from others?
Shoppers have a wide range of clothing options both locally and internationally, at reasonable value for what they spend.
Overtime and in a competitive manufacturing and retail sector, we have seen how our foundational wish for a versatile, minimalist luxury and subtle-cool brand, has transcended into a purpose that has overwhelmingly connected with (South) Africans.
We can now confidently and succinctly say that we have achieved our purpose of building a brand, product and service experience that is founded on what we’ve coined 'inclusive-exclusivity’; a household lifestyle brand belonging to (South) Africans and possessing an exclusive (global) standard of quality, style and appeal.
Our departure from the rest is also an experience that thrusts collectors of our apparel to confidently feel that they embody qualities that talk to being a unique, progressive, subtly-cool and discerning individual.
From a product construction perspective, it has been our experience that comparable clothing options with the unique design features typical of our pieces are often impractical; nje garments find a great balance between the unexpected and comfort.
Finally our clients are always pleasantly surprised by the versatility of our clothing across season, occasion and personal mood; ultimately making for a longer lifespan in the closet!
Who inspires your work as a brand?
Our work is inspired mostly by our own personal style, our crazy and audacious dreams, tapered by the preferences of our clients.
What are the realities of being a young and on the come up fashion design brand in South Africa right now?
If one is fortunate enough to have a high degree of regularity in sales, the daily management of cash-flows is a challenge. If you’re earning an income from a permanent job for example, one's expenses and income are known with some certainty when it comes to their amounts and their timing. But often in a young business that predictability is tough to come by. So even when you make money, you might not be spending it in an optimal way when it comes to timing. Service providers often require payments at different times to when shoppers buy.
Another challenge we overcame probably only a year after operations started was turning nje from a concept to a business. This related to understanding the true nature of our business model and whether it was actually viable.
We also had to recognise that we actually had two businesses - a manufacturing and retail one - and to figure out how to make those two work individually and together. Additionally, it quickly became apparent that as much as offering our clothing as ready-to-wear is convenient for the customer, it requires substantial upfront capital at the start of every cycle of new releases. Some uncertainty is also introduced as we’re taking a calculated guess on the styles, sizes and colours that will do well each cycle. So this almost mirrors the experience of starting a new business every time we release new styles!
Lastly funding from sources other than sales is necessary to stay top of the client’s mind and to take business to the next level. The public sector and corporates have increasingly made access to funding that much easier. They are also getting closer to translating their requirements in the business language of an emerging business, while making sure our business cases tick the boxes of an A-grade investment.
Our personal experience though has been that where one is unsuccessful, there is little to no feedback on the reasons for this. This makes it tricky to improve on the business case and to focus the relevant message to different categories of investors.
Your dream for Nje?
To cement nje as a proudly South African, black-owned household brand that can be exported internationally.
'nje' is a manufacturer and retailer of versatile and exceptional quality and apparel with a silent punch! We sell our clothing as ready-to-wear which means the clothing is available then and there for shoppers to buy from our easy-to-shop online store www.nje.co.za or from our Cape Town based workshop.
In our three years of existence we have become known for creating versatile pieces that appeal to an x-factored and diverse shopper with a penchant for high quality of product and service in their lifestyle choices across the board.
Shoppers identity us by exceptional workmanship of unique and minimalist luxury, phenomenal fits, versatile garments with a wide range of wearability, as well as what they describe as extraordinary service with a personal touch. Many have expressed that the clothing feels as if it were made just for them.
About 90% of our consistent shoppers are black Africans with just over two thirds of them female. The majority are ladies and gents at middle to executive level professionals in the financial services sector with media and medical professionals a close second. And overwhelmingly many of these clients are those that seek a deep sense of pride and heritage in what they wear.
All our fabrics are locally sourced with our garments assembled by our own skilled artisans while outsourcing manageable volumes to highly skilled black, female-run manufacturers.
Tell us about your journey as a brand. When did you start? How has the journey been going?
We have travelled quite an interesting journey that would probably call for a book to put everything down!
We conceived the name and essence for our brand in Johannesburg shortly after we started dating in 2014, only to actively work on developing the brand in 2015 when we moved to Cape Town for permanent employment opportunities.
We initially set out to build a household brand that would retail exclusively online; little did we know we would be ahead of our time when Covid 19 struck. There was quite a lot of frog kissing and money lost before we found the right partners in terms of manufacturing (pattern-makers, machinists, cutters and fabric suppliers) and retail (courier partners, photographers, models).
Neither of us had prior knowledge of clothing manufacturing and most of what we’ve learnt is through a combination of self-learning, taking advantage of government-subsidised training as well as informal training from artisans in the manufacturing epicentre of the country Woodstock, Cape Town.
In 2016 our production start was to outsource our sampling and production while storing and dispatching our stock from our two-bedroom flat. A few months later we officially launched our online store to much excitement and great sales activity. We were not frequent online shoppers ourselves before we started the business, so we invested substantially in crafting an experience of ease, convenience and reliability that we would have loved to see.
The year 2018 saw us move the business from our home to an industrial factory space in Woodstock where we began to independently produce. This year was a tough one as economic activity started to decline. We also probably over-invested in styles that steered away from our first launched designs. We had to take a step back to reconnect with our DNA.
The ensuing years to 2019 involved a lot of tedious heavy-lifting in the form of executing nation-wide pop-ups. Bonolo was pregnant twice in that time and sometimes we wonder if our children’s high energies have anything to do this period of extreme activity! These pop-ups were important though to grow our customer base and give them an opportunity to physically experience the quality of our clothing.
We are currently in a new and improved studio space at the Salt Circle Arcade, Woodstock which is a few steps from the internationally acclaimed Old Biscuit Mill, Neighbourgoods market in Cape Town. It is here where we make and sell our clothing under one roof.
Your advice to up and coming designers and fellow entrepreneurs?
To always stay true to yourselves and to what really ‘rocks your boat’ as this provides an anchor and consistency for yourselves and your shoppers.
To keep looking for new ways to innovate even with constrained budgets. So much in the world is changing and at such a fast pace; those that lead in innovation, tend to increase their chances of survival.
Finally, we have seen the value of recognising that our shoppers are our primary funders. This has helped us maintain respect and exceptional service to them. We’ve been humbled by some of our clients gifting us in celebration of milestones, introducing us to business opportunities or sending us the occasional love letter to keep us motivated in difficult times. Along with our staff, they are our most prized asset yet!
For more visit their site https://www.nje.co.za/