Ancillar NombewuBy Ancillar Nombewu|November 1, 2020|9 Minutes|In Entrepreneur

In The Beginning I Was So Sad And Angry

Childhood disappointments? We’ve all had them. How many of you have the guts and ambition to turn one into a money-making dream? Gracia Bampile did.

Not many can say they discovered their ‘why’ in life before they turned 10. An eighth birthday present changed her life. It was the day Gracia Bampile, born in July 1991, says she had what Oprah calls an “Aha moment”. A disappointment, born of good intentions, was the catalyst.

On that birthday, her parents bought her what she calls an ugly African print dress to celebrate. It was so bad, it inspired her to start making clothes of her own at the tender age of eight.

“I was so upset that day. The material felt like plastic and I felt like I was wearing a granny dress. I didn’t like the dress at all but because as a kid you rely on parents buying you clothes, I knew I had to learn and start making the clothes I like. That dress ignited my passion,” says Bampile.

Yet the means to achieve the end came from her family roots. Bampile spent hours watching the nimble fingers of her seamstress grandmother as she made clothes until she mastered the art. As she grew older, she became concerned about how many of her people shunned African print designs in their everyday wear.

“I noticed that people had a perception that they can only wear African print clothes when attending events. African prints tell so much about our culture, our stories and celebrate who we are as Africans. So, I took it upon myself to disrupt the norm,” she says.

She began selling clothes while studying at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“I knew I was doing something right when I would design and make clothes and people would want to buy clothes off my back. This was shocking to me because I had never really thought about going into the fashion business, I loved making clothes but I didn’t think people would pay good money to buy my designs. So, in my third year at university, I decided to start. When I decided I was going to do this, I decided on the name Haute Afrika because, Haute means height and I wanted to make things that made people feel elevated by just being African and wearing African inspired designs,” she says.

In 2015, sixteen years on from the birthday disappointment, Bampile founded Haute Afrika in Johannesburg, South Africa. This has become the home of African print designs aimed at changing the narrative around African fashion. Again, this move was born of disappointment, this time at university.

“One day I was told I couldn’t sell anymore because it was interfering with other people’s studies. I knew I had to make a quick plan and go online. Haute Afrika started very small with just me making the clothes and designing outfits but quickly grew. In just five years we have managed to cement ourselves in the industry. We have clients from all over the world and have dressed some of Africa’s stylish people like Boity Thulo, Mihlali Ndamase and Maps Maponyane and stars such as Amanda Black and Kwesta.”

To build this business, this international relations graduate had to quit a steady well-paid job with the United Nations.

“I am very passionate about helping people so I was working with the United Nations Refugee Agency. I kept my job while I was figuring out the business. I would work every night when I get home from work which took a lot of dedication and hard work,” she says.

The burning of the midnight oil paid off. In 2020, more than 20 years on from the birthday dress dismay, Haute Afrika now employs about 10 full time and part-time staff. It has about 90 000 followers and buyers on Instagram alone; in September – in the tail end of COVID-19 lockdown – the company launched its first flagship store at Rosebank Mall, one of South Africa’s most affluent shopping destinations.

“Now with this new physical store we know that we are serving a big need. Some of our clients want to try on the clothes, touch the fabric and interact with the brand physically and we know that is what the store will provide,” she says.

Building a brand has many challenges. There are start-up costs, finding the right talent, sourcing and industry relationships.

“Coming into the fashion industry wasn’t a long- term plan of mine. It kind of chose me and in the beginning, I didn’t know certain tricks- of- the- trade that cost me a lot of time and money, but I think some of those things came with experience so I think the main challenge was allowing myself to fail at certain things! In the beginning, this would make me so sad and angry but as my business has grown I’ve seen how those adversities have been transformed into opportunities.”

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 made it more difficult. The pandemic hit the fashion industry like a sledgehammer. Stores shut down and those that reopened struggled to tempt back shoppers. The veteran fashion stores of South Africa all took a heavy knock: Zara, Forever 21, Prada South Africa and Edcon, owner of Edgars and Jet. The former retail giant Edcon, which was struggling before the pandemic, suffered the indignity of being spilt up and sold off. I the maelstrom, Haute Afrika was no exception.

“2020 has been a difficult year for businesses around the world. Our sales went down significantly but I knew that this too shall pass. I had to keep the fire burning. I am so grateful that we were able to survive during the pandemic. We made fashionable masks which people like which helped us tremendously with our finances.”
According to Bampile, the passion for fashion makes it all worth it.

“Innovation is constantly doing things better than what you have done before or what is available in the market. There is a constant pressure to be innovative especially in the world we live in today, one thing that has worked for me is digging deep, exposing myself to new ideas and just generally being open to new ideas.”

Bampile is a classic example of a young African entrepreneur who dares to challenge norms to set a new trend. You may not know her name now, but one day you may be wearing one of her creations. COVID-19 or high water, she is not going anywhere and determined to disrupt the competitive African fashion industry. Gracia Bampile, remember that name. How many more young entrepreneurs have the guts and verve to turn a childhood disappointment into a dream that makes money with style?

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