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Running a clothing boutique can be a highly rewarding career path in the fashion industry, that brings with it the responsibility of supporting and promoting the designs of the designers you work with. Giving you a behind the scenes look into what it takes to start up and run a clothing boutique we caught up with Wanjiku Nyoike-Mugo, the founder of The Designers Studio, a clothing and accessories boutique in Kenya, discussing everything from motivations, to the challenges and rewards that come from being your own boss in the creative industries.

1. Please introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about The Designers Studio, and the motivation behind working for yourself as opposed to working for someone else.

My name is Wanjiku Nyoike-Mugo, a human rights lawyer by training and a passionate believer in business to create change. The Designers Studio was a business idea I had since 2011 and it was primarily founded on having our own brand and store that we could call our own at home (Kenya) where we could buy from our own brands instead of always buying foreign goods. I grew tired of travelling abroad and always buying foreign goods then coming back home only to find those exact stores I had left behind. It didn’t make sense to me, being Kenyan that I would work in Kenya and fund foreign countries.

My greatest motivation was my passion for the continent and I just felt like it had such a bad reputation; out there it was always portrayed in one way; either the poverty story or the corruption story and it just bugged me that truth of African countries was not being highlighted. I have travelled and quite frankly every time I would come home, I realized more and more how incredible this country, and continent is. Of course this has been changing with ‘Africa Rising’ and all but I still feel like it is my mission to present Kenya and Africa in the way it should be. We are just as capable as any other nation or continent.

The Designers Studio (TDS) is a premium lifestyle brand that seeks to bring knowledge about the industry, showcasing local brands and providing a platform for customers to buy them easily in one central location. TDS is not about fashion in the frivolous way that some people might assume it to be but rather geared towards highlighting the business of fashion and also change perceptions about the continent, being proud of what we have locally and owning that. There was a time, and to a certain extent it still exists where people were proud and boastful of buying clothes and bags from abroad, it was cool. I created TDS to change that so that people could be proud and boastful of owning Kenyan brands. It’s a transition of course but it has to start somewhere.

As for working for myself, I was greatly inspired by my parents who are business people and I always worked with them from the time I was quite young. I enjoyed being in the business arena and seeing them work and helping out from the ground up. To me, employment was fun while it lasted but the feeling of having a ceiling dictated by someone really put me off. I didn’t, and still don’t understand why employment should feel like an uphill climb based on archaic rules and not necessarily work output. I didn’t mind the work it would require to start the business, it was the risk I was taking that scared me the most; leaving comfort behind for a complete unknown but my faith in God kept me going and pushed me to quit and just do it. Never regretted it and I thank God for how far I have come in this journey.

2. You went from writing a blog to opening a physical retail store. What prompted you to start a blog, and what role did having a blog play in making the decision to open a store, and how did you make the transition?

When I started TDS I had written out a plan (roadmap for the business) and the first step was to have a store and for the blog to complement the store. When I jumped into that though, I realized that I didn’t know much about the industry and the designers were not so accessible in terms of information. So I changed my route and decided to launch the blog first to create a fashion magazine where I would feature all the designers I could find and share their stories with my readers. The more I delved into that, the more I realized that there was so much more information about the industry we could cover and it grew bigger than I thought from covering designers to fashion photographers to models to industry related matters. That’s when the monthly and bi-monthly Series began and to date we continue to feature designers both from Kenya and Africa, covering topics from tech to the business of fashion.

Having the store was always the plan so the transition was easy and funnily enough I had taken another risk and booked a retail space in Two Rivers (a shopping mall in Kenya) for the flagship store in 2014 (5 months into having started) because I believed that I would get the right designers to work with by the time the shop opened. As I was building the shop on paper, I continued to build and grow the blog and launched the online shop in 2015 to provide an online platform to enable customers to buy local from the comfort of their homes or offices. TDS is about bringing all the information about, and accessibility to designers under one roof online and physically.

3. What have you found to be the most rewarding, and the most challenging parts of running a retail store?

I will start with the most challenging part of running a retail store: operations and systems. You need to have your operations all written out and clear for all staff and suppliers to know how things operate so nothing is left to chance. There needs to be systems in place for accepting stock, monitoring them, budgeting, paying salaries, paying overheads like rent and electricity and ensuring all these things flow together smoothly. It’s not been an easy jump into it, and I have learnt many hard lessons when your systems and operations are not strictly written out and upheld. Goodwill and friendliness with suppliers is one thing, business is another and the two cannot exist in isolation. You need to have good business relations with your suppliers but you also need to be business savvy in dealing with them.

The most rewarding thing is having a customer walk in and buy from a brand they had no idea about. Seeing a happy customer find what they love and leave with an item, or items from the store always brings me joy. Recently, one customer came in and bought 4 items from 3 different designers and my heart melted. It has always been my dream to have customers buy and style up an entire wardrobe from Kenyan brands so when they do that, its great. I also really enjoying bringing in a new brand and displaying it for the first time in the store; interacting with designers is always exciting and seeing their creativity and their passion translate from their being to their product is why I keep doing this work. Another rewarding part of this is finding great staff that are excited about the products and have fun being at work. I truly thank God for all these things.

4. What do you look for in the products you stock and the designers you choose to work with, and why?

I like to meet the designers I stock in the store first and interact with them. It gives me an opportunity to get to know them and how their personality and creativity translates into their pieces. I look for designers where I can see them in their work, so no matter how many designers we have in the store each designer’s work stands out. I look for products that are unique, well made, the finishing, labeling, consistency in their work, the story in the pieces and its wearability.

Of course, I also look for products that I know my customers will buy. Having opened the store recently, I can already tell what our customers will buy and what they won’t buy regardless of price so if I know something won’t sell, I won’t have it in the store as there would be neither a benefit for the designer nor myself.

In addition to that, I look for designers who understand the business, such as producing line sheets, inventory with their prices and providing the necessary business documentation. I also work with designers who are able to stock a number of pieces and are then able to re-stock when the need arises.

Most importantly I work with designers who are not only willing to work with me but whom I can relate to and have a healthy relationship with.

5.Having gone the through the experience of opening a store, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?

Oh my gosh! Having the systems and operations in check from the get-go is crucial. I would have implemented them much earlier and spent as much as I did in design and procuring on drafting those out. What I also learnt as the fit out of the shop was going on is that you may have a nice plan laid out on paper but you have to be open-minded and flexible to adjust to changes to make it work.

6. What is the best piece of advice you have been given about starting and running your own business?

There is so much of it I wouldn’t know where to begin but I will give you 4 key ones. My parents are my best business advisors and they have advised me on nearly everything from how to deal with banks to taxation matters. Above all my parents taught me to put God first in business and the rest would follow.

My former boss, friend, and mentor called Abena Kwakye-Berko told me that the only person I should compete with is myself. This has taught me to focus on my roadmap and not get distracted trying to compete with ‘the other guy’.

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The third thing I hold on to comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:11 “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Together with Abena’s advice, it showed me how important it is to put your head down and do the work; helped me to not get distracted or bogged down by noise and countless opinions and negativity.

Lastly, I watched a Chase Jarvis interview with Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, and she read this quote from Theodore Roosevelt and that was it; it spoke to me. (I even bought her book ‘Daring Greatly’) Starting and running a business is like an arena, thinking of it that way, it all makes sense and you know what to expect.

It is not the critic who counts nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error or shortcoming. But who know the greatest enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause, who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt.

7. What advice would you give to designers wanting to approach and pitch their designs to retail stores and boutiques like The Designers Studio?

They say luck is opportunity meeting readiness/preparedness. I would advise, from my experience as I am still learning and growing, that designers spend a lot of time doing their research about the retailers they want to stock in, and what they need to have ready for those places. Different retailers have different requirements and especially so if you are dealing with retailers outside your home country. Designers also need to know how to pitch their business well and know what works for their brand because not all retailers will benefit your brand as the customers are different, the vibe is different…and so forth…

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Designers need to know their brand inside out, which includes knowing the materials you work with, your design and production cycle and your margins (what you can and cannot accept for pricing). A designer needs to have a line sheet (how else can a retailer know your product), know how to prepare an inventory and have photos of your products.

8. What can we expect to see from The Designers Studio in the near future?

There will be a few changes and upgrades to our online presence with regard to our online store and the online magazine to really cement our growth. There have been many years spent on building the foundation so it is now time to start growing and increasing our online and physical presence more.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact thing to look out for but for me, the sky is the limit so anything is possible and anything is expected. Exciting times ahead!

We thank Wanjiku for taking the time to talk to us; and to find out more about the exciting work that The Designers Studio is doing visit: http://tdsblog.com

– Tapiwa Matsinde

[Image credit: The images shown were provided courtesy The Designers Studio. If downloaded and used elsewhere please reference accordingly.]

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