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Strato: The Brand that Kept Calling

Posted on June 6, 2013

I have always liked fashion. When I was around 8 or 9 I would walk around the house modelling the clothes I found in my bedroom closet.

Fast forward into High School: I understood that my mind was creative so I sought to venture into design. This gave me quite a few choices for a career: graphic design, fashion, interior design, and architecture (to name a few). And as for my first love of gracing the runways of top fashion designers, well, that was definitely out of the question because I wasn’t tall enough! But looking back the choice has always been clear: for me, it has always been about the clothes.

After graduating from CPUT’s design school I worked at the Foshini Group Head Office as a trainee buyer. A few months prior to that, I was a casual at one of the company’s branches. So when they told me that part of my training was to return to outlets I was not impressed. The experience was bearable for the first year. Then I got bored. I found that there was nothing more to my title than being an assistant. I wanted to draw, but nobody drew. Everything came from China.

I began to look for career opportunities elsewhere, but after a while I decided to start my own business: Strato. Working at Foshini made me realise that we do not have our own street apparel: in the market we have Nike, Adidas, and Puma – but none of them are our own. The idea was simple: I aimed to take advantage of the niche market I identified in the industry. Strato was about street sportswear. Everything was set. Then I found myself making Matric dance dresses and traditional attire for my mother’s church friends. It clearly wasn’t working out. So I went back to searching the job market.

I can see that its original failure was not because the idea wasn’t strong enough, but rather the implementation of its strategies was not focused. I, as the entrepreneur, was no longer working under the influences of the brand’s purpose – I was simply making clothes because I could, and because I was being paid to do so.

I worked as a Personal Assistant for the woman who started the Cape Town Fashion Council. At times I couldn’t believe that through my journey in fashion, I found myself back in an administrative position. But because the Council was in its inception phase, I was significantly involved, giving me the space to learn more than my title suggested I might. And a little while later, I was promoted to being the marketing liaison, which positioned me to go back to school to further my understanding of the value chain of business in the fashion industry.

The focus for my honours degree was marketing, in line with the new directions of my career path.  For the thesis titled ‘creating sustainable brands through effective marketing tools’, I had to build a case study to show the practical component of creating such a brand. Thus Strato re-emerged from the depths of hidden memories. Unlike its initial implementation, I had to go back to marketing basics, under the guidance of the course, and build the concept of Strato into a brand that would be worth people’s notice.

I created a website, printed business cards and marketing pamphlets, etc. But because of the knowledge and experience I had gained over the years, particularly through the Cape Town Fashion Council, I took advantage of the few strategies I picked up within the industry to help further my brand. For example, I established strong relationships with people within the manufacturing process, who later gave me sample materials, and I sent my products to magazines, who used them for editorials – helping me gain the branding exposure I needed. And by the end of the year, I proved both in theory and practice how to create a sustainable brand.

But while I was impressed, my boss was concerned. She began to question my loyalty to her. To be honest, now that I had completely fallen in love with Strato, she had every right to be. But I stayed, especially since she had paid for half of the tuition for that year.

Eventually the relationship became fickle. Because I knew more, and questioned more, I believe things became somewhat uncomfortable. She took me to the board, and I was dismissed. And no matter the extent of euphemism, dismissed means you are fired, which didn’t sit well with me. So I questioned that dismal. I took her to the CCMA. The conclusion of the long process saw an out-of-court settlement. The money I was paid bought machines and a studio that enabled my brand Strato to be in full operation.

This journey has been a squiggly path. But so is the path to success. My advice? Enjoy it – it is a long ride.

Maloti Mothobi

I am youngprenuer