Smillford Marapo is a renowned local fashion designer who followed his passion during a time when the industry was thought to be a preserve for women.
After working for his aunt who owned a boutique in Lobatse and accompanying her to buy stock he developed an eye and passion for fashion.
During his 14 year career, he has clothed big organizations and his designs have been sold by stores.
Having broken into the industry when it was not understood and survived he is now helping fast track young local designers through the Botswana Fashion Designers Association as its Treasurer.
Archie Mokoka talked to the soft spoken local fashion guru about the hardships of a growing industry.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
I am a fashion designer, a father of two, a husband, a farmer and treasurer of the Botswana Fashion Designers Association who hails from Lotlhakane near Kanye.
Q: Where did you study to be a designer?
I graduated from London International School of Fashion in 2000. It’s a small school in Jo’burg but it produces high quality designers.
Q: Is it any good?
Compared to our institutions and a lot of others, I would say it’s one of the best schools.
When I was running my business I used to attach student fashion designers from local schools and they were struggling to put a garment together even though they were at their third year.
I used to wonder why and thought perhaps their syllabus was poor.
But at my school first year students could complete wearable clothes.
Maybe it’s the fashion shows we used to attend which groomed us. Seeing someone wearing my creation or buying it gave me a lot of confidence.
In this industry, learning is producing. In those days locally we regarded fashion design to be a woman thing.
Yeah, here at home I used to get people asking me why I chose to do a woman’s career.
They would also ask why I did a career without money and regard for passion. I simply dismissed that as Batswana’s mentality against the arts.
Why should you get stuck in a career you think will pay you well but end up bored and unable to perform well?
Fortunately elsewhere, including South Africa the views are different.
Q: Was it tough to make money out of fashion back then?
No it wasn’t. Not for me. You see after graduating, I showcased at the SA Fashion week under graduate designers category and I realized that I could take my clothes to the market.
When I found my clothes had been bought I got motivated to do more. Even though there was no proper marketing or big fashion shows here.
I actually stopped taking part in local fashion shows because they were done just for the sake of it.
There was no guarantee that my clients would come and there was little media coverage.
I was in Cape Town recently and the coverage was amazing. All the media were there.
SA Tourism was part of it too and the City of Cape Town municipality taking event to great heights. CNBC Africa, the business channel was there too. Here at home there isn’t that much support from anywhere.
Q: How long have you been in Botswana?
I have always worked in Botswana. I completed my studies in 2000 and I stayed in SA for a year. I joined the Young Designers Workshop, a foundation for graduates in 2001.
The incubator gave us a lot of information about the fashion market. The idea was to bring that concept here, but it was always a struggle to get funds to kick it off.
Actually I’m a patron of that now. I came home in 2002 and started my own workshop at home until 2007 when I moved to Gaborone West mall, for a bigger space, where I operated until last year.
Q: How was business?
I had 15 employees, business was good; I was doing a lot of corporate uniforms some which are still in use as we speak.
My customers included Capital Bank, BNYC, BNOC, Bank of Botswana, Air Botswana, Alexander Forbes to name a few. I did mostly uniforms because I discovered that most Batswana don’t want to pay.
They don’t understand what design garment is.
You go all out with your creativity but they want to pay like they are buying mass produced clothes from the shops.
Q: Why did you close shop?
The guys from West Africa arrived.
Batswana just take a pattern from a magazine and give to these guys.
They charge very low prices because they don’t have to design but just sit behind a machine whereas we consult with clients before we draw a pattern.
I’m not the only designer who ended up closing shop. There are some who are really struggling.
I think the best idea is to work on ready to wear clothing lines and supply to the retailers. Relying on individual clients is not safe.
Q: Have you supplied any shops yourself?
I have done that. When I started in Botswana I supplied Fay’s Boutique at the Gaborone main mall and Just Brands at Fairgrounds.
Q: How did that go?
It was good. My sales actually went up especially at Just Brands. When I started people couldn’t believe that a Motswana guy had made the clothes.
Q: Why then did you stop?
The suppliers were giving us the same low quality material and people could tell where the material was from. I don’t stick to something that doesn’t work for me and I like to work with quality.
Q: What are you doing right now?
I do my production around the world because of quality. After closing shop I travelled around the world making contacts.
Q: Give me two places that you do production.
Mauritius and Beijing. Their quality is good and they really do a good job unlike here at home where people like to knock off.
Q: What sort of arrangement do you have with these guys?
I come up with designs and they do the production for me. My associates, especially in Beijing have a small workshop with five workers and they can stitch a very nice jacket for you, and they are very fast.
Those people have been in a class for service and the quality is amazing.
Q: So you still supply the shops?
Yeah. The other one closed but there is another one in the pipeline. Also with the fashion association we are trying to get the young designers into the shops.
As the committee we don’t want to just do fashion shows but do also get them to do ready to wear range destined for the market.
Q: Let’s talk about the association.
Last year there was no association when the President’s day competitions were held, so four of us designers started putting the Botswana Fashion Designers Association together.
With that we were able to run the fashion category of the competition for this year.
Last year the officers organizing the competitions had invited the designers they know especially those that had benefitted from the youth grant so there were few participants.
But this year the turn-out was amazing. I was part of the team that went around the regions unearthing the talent.
We held workshops to help the designers improve. Even those that didn’t make it past the regional level of competitions benefitted from these workshops.
Q: What else do association members gain from their membership?
As we speak we are planning to have an incubator for our members who don’t have machinery. All the facilities will be in the incubator.
There is also the Trend website which they subscribe to and it helps them keep up with the trends.
The CEO of Cape Town Fashion Council was here at the President’s competitions and he remarked that he could see creativity but the problem is that we are not following trends.
Other benefits include the just mentioned President’s Day competitions, the Independence Day and the planned Botswana fashion week.
The best male designer and best female designer have gone to Toronto, Canada where they will attend a fashion show and get the experience.
The other thing is that we will get their designs to the shops. We will help them come up with acceptable quality ranges.
Q: Are there any shops that are supporting this cause?
Yeah. There are a few stores that are ready.
They won’t be buying but they are offering us space and will get commission for what they sell.
Statement Inc has already given us the thumbs up. We don’t want to have too many stores before we bring our quality to a certain level.
The creativity is good but the workmanship is the one that still needs to be pushed. What I saw in Cape Town, however made me think otherwise.
We certainly do a better job here. All that’s needed is confidence
Q: Who will fund this incubator?
We are asking the ministry to find us. This will also help the designers to do standard sizes.
Most of them are from brigades and have only learnt how to do patterns and adhering to different standard sizes is a serious challenge.
When the funds come we will implement such plans.
Q: Where do you see yourself and the association in 10 years?
By 2016 I want to be taken seriously. The incubator will also be operating and we will be having an annual fashion week. Quality will be up to standard and few stores will also be stocking at least 90% of local designs.
Q: How do you unwind?
I go to the farm at least two times a week. I also like the Chobe National Park.
Q: What’s your favourite food?
Oxtail, lidombi and morogo. I also love traditional food.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Thank you Mr Mokoka.