“Let’s take Made in Kenya to a whole new level!” Words the co-founder and manager of Vivo Activewear, Wandia Gichuru, confidently champions on their dynamic website. Since 2011, this ready-to-wear (RTW) brand has steadily grown from an idea to a 62-employee operation and eight fully-fledged stores. Garnering media attention all through her journey, Gichuru’s career path and Vivo’s origin story is well known. (Refresh your memory here, here and here). In fact, she’s shared everything from their big wins to their mistakes and the lessons they’ve learnt along the way. Gichuru goes even further than just a quality retail-experience and offers fashion business advice; in an industry known for holding their cards close to their tailored lapels. If you’re looking to tap into the RTW scene, this fashion savvy, business-smart lioness has even more pearls of wisdom to share:
For a designer looking to launch a RTW store / brand, realistically, how much would they need to get started?
It really depends on how you plan to sell and distribute your designs. The most expensive route is to set up your own store as you will need to cover costs of store fit out, rent deposits, goodwill, etc. If the store is located in a premium mall you are looking at a minimum of Ksh5 million to begin. If you are happy to sell through others (e.g. consignment stores such as The Designer Studio at Two Rivers) or online then your upfront costs will be primarily designing and manufacturing your collection and marketing costs.
What’s the smartest avenue to source capital?
I would advise against taking a commercial loan at the very beginning as it places a huge burden on a new business. If friends or family are willing to give you a soft loan, that’s a different story. But most small businesses begin with the entrepreneur’s savings.
What kind of units should they be looking at for their initial launch? Is this a ‘Go Big or go home’ situation?
My advice would be to start small, but ensure that you have a way to produce more quite quickly if the market responds well. For example, you should know how you can source more of the same fabric if necessary. As far as specific numbers go, that depends on the type of clothing and the price points. Make fewer items of very expensive pieces.
How often should they change up the pieces offered in the store?
Every store is different, but at Vivo we try to offer a few new pieces every week. That way there is a reason for a clients to keep coming back and we try and always have something new to show them.
Every week? How do you come up with new pieces in such a short time-frame?
At Vivo, the design process is very collaborative. We have a design team, but they work closely with the marketing, sales, and merchandising and production teams to ensure that we are always factoring in feedback we get from our clients, historical sales data, as well as technical input from the production side. We work around a theme for the month or quarter and then decide how many new styles we need to come up with based on that theme. It is a very iterative process and we go back and forth a lot until we feel we have gotten it right.
What’s the balance between store basics and the items that are seasonal?
We divide our designs into three categories: basic, basic fashion and fashion. The bulk of our products are basic and basic fashion and we do fewer items that we would consider very trendy or seasonal.
In a 2014 interview, you mentioned that 40 to 50 per cent of what sells in your stores is locally made. Is that still the case or is all production done in Kenya now?
We are now producing approximately 60% of our products in Kenya and we want that number to keep growing. Our goal is becoming a 100% Made in Africa brand. The reason we still source our raw material from Asia is that we use fabric that has a lot of stretch and spandex in it, and this kind of material is not made locally. If we could find a local manufacturer we would definitely source from them!
What happens to pieces that sell faster that the rest? How do you handle that?
When we have a really fast moving style, we try and replenish it – and because we produce locally we are sometimes able to do so quite quickly. However, we also do not want to flood the market with too many of the same style so we have to keep that in mind.
How do you deal with pieces that don’t move?
With slow moving product we try and push sales through extra marketing or visual merchandising. If that doesn’t work we will eventually put it on sale and try and move it that way.
We’ve noticed Vivo has its own sizing chart…why did you decide to go in that direction?
Our size chart goes from 1 to 8 (one being the smallest and 8 being the largest) and we chose that because our styles are very versatile and can be worn in many different ways. We did not want people to be boxed in by traditional sizes. We feel product sizes should reflect the item, and not the person wearing it. It is perfectly feasibly for example, that someone could choose to buy the same style in 2 different sizes because they want to wear it in two different looks. We work primarily with stretchy fabric because of the versatility and comfort it provides. We want to be able to cater to all women in all sizes.
You’ve previously noted that customer feedback is crucial to Vivo’s success. How do you get this information from your clients?
Our main source of feedback is through our sales team who interact with our clients on a daily basis. They are encouraged to share any feedback they think is relevant – for example, if a client tries on an item but doesn’t buy it – they should try and find out why and then let the design team know. We also have client surveys and occasionally have customer focus groups.
Congratulations on the expansion of your Junction Mall branch! How do you know it’s time to expand or add another store to the list?
We are still very much in a growth phase so we are always looking for possible new locations. Of course we have to assess each one based on the caption area, the likely footfall, the profile of client that it attracts, the rent amount, etc. So it is a carefully thought-through decision. Especially now that there are so many malls coming up in Kenya, we have more ability to choose.
Pitfalls of expanding too fast?
Not being able to maintain the same standard and qualities. Having a lot more people to manage, and needing to put the right systems and procedures in place. Growth comes with a lot of challenges so you need to keep analysing what is working and what isn’t.
You must get a lot of copycats…How do you protect your idea from counterfeiters?
It is very difficult, especially in the fast fashion space. It is timely and expensive, and it is negative energy. So, we spend more of our energy focusing on creating new designs and staying ahead of the competition. By the time you are copying us we have moved on to something else.
Retail price points range tend to range between Ksh500-5,000 in your store. How do you keep them low, pay your staff well, make a quality product, and still take home a profit?
We try and manage our processes and work on a tight budget so that we can keep the margins down. It isn’t always easy, but we try and offer the best value possible to our clients.
You’ve had celebrity campaigns… how do you choose who to collaborate with and what is the impact? Are we a celebrity driven society?
We have been very fortunate, having had a large number of influencers and celebrities support the business. I think the fact that we are a local brand has given people more reason to want to support us. They also genuinely like our products and actually buy from us as well. So, they are genuine clients and not just doing it for PR or marketing.
People respond well to celebrity endorsed campaigns, especially if it is people they admire and are inspired by. But I don’t think we are a very celebrity driven society.
Parting shot: Women’s wear is very competitive and yet you’ve managed to stand out. What lessons have you learned so far that are key to success?
We tailor our designs for our target market, and try and stay competitive on price. We are also one of the few locally manufactured RTW brands – which appeals to people’s patriotism and national pride. Design for your market. Listen to what the customers want and how much they are willing to pay, then work around that. Keep growing, keep improving, keeping offering customers better products and experiences.
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Store Locations: Junction Mall | Yaya | Galleria | Garden City | New Muthaiga Shopping Centre | City Mall, Nyali |The Hub, Karen | Magharibi Place | Online (www.vivoactivewear.com)