Meteoric rise from street vendor to funky fashion king

The idea of interviewing someone harbouring the ambition of launching a clothing label didn't sound terribly exciting. Besides publications have lifestyle and fashion scribes for such things.

Then again, as Sowetan reported recently, the age of madness is upon us.

Over the past two decades or so anyone with a passing role in a soapie or a forgettable song thinks that's enough to launch a personalised fashion label, range of eye wear or a perfume.

But, one at a time, they fell flat on their backsides.

I knew I had to talk to Sechaba Mogale because, for some reason, his name kept cropping up as one-third of a team that helped redefine youth culture in contemporary South Africa.

I honestly believe that Loxion Kulca should be a clothing range fit to be a prescribed, standard wear for social misfits who end up in the slammer.

But my daughter and millions of other youths would laugh me out of town if they ever hear me say so out loud. People have been labelled dinosaurs for less.

So for your information, Mogale and his two partners have been responsible for creating the most successful Afrocentric fashion label this country has ever seen.

And this was long before Stone Cherrie or Sun Goddess would sell their first outfits. But let's leave that for later shall we?

We caught up with Mogale at his new restaurant on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Tyrwhitt Street.

It's a good address in a good suburb. Rosebank is the playground for the black diamonds, the trendy set and those from the other side of the tracks who want to be noticed or simply rub themselves against new money.

It is here in Lotsha, a restaurant he co-owns with his sister-in-law, Mokgadi, that Mogale sold me the idea of his new venture, an apparel company he chose to call 16 Stitches.

For the better part of an hour, Mogale assaulted my sensibilities with the zealotry of a televangelist.

If his reputation had not preceded him, I would gladly have placed him on my knee, given him a good spanking and sent him packing.

I have heard enough of these youthful dreams to last me a lifetime. The advice has always been the same: "It's long past your bedtime kiddo."

I had never seen one stitch of his output with my own bulbs, let alone 16 and already my head was bobbing like a dog's.

It seems he has everything planned down to the last buttonhole.

He pulled out some rough sketches of his planned biz and spread the sheet on the table as an architect would showcase the plans of a house that could guarantee him early retirement. On display were graphics of patented stitch patterns, buttons, pocket rivets and labels. In another time and place, it would have been like watching paint dry.

"Excellence. Attention to detail," he said.

Why call his new gig an apparel company instead of a gorgeous, plain label?

"A label," he told me, as one would explain the ABC of life to a child, "is just one part of the value chain. It's just like we did at Loxion."

It basically means a label owner has to outsource products from manufacturers and then pass the merchandise to shop owners or chain stores to deliver to the end users, consumers. Put another way, a label owner is a hunter, while an apparel company owner is a farmer.

It's a concept perfected by that international institution, Van Heusen, a shirt-making company started by Phillips-Van Heusen , probably during the Ice Age. Mogale has studied the concept as if it was a religion.

"Van Heusen is an old company that thrives on its reputation and good workmanship, but then new kids on the block came into the market and started eating a chunk out of the company's profits," says Mogale.

Instead of curling up and dying by sticking to tradition, the old firm took the war into the rough streets where the upstarts were holding fort. And they were still big enough to play rough.

He says they bought out new and sexy labels like Calvin Klein, Boss and Bugatti and tried and tested ones like Arrow and City of London among many.

Those they could not buy outright, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino and DKNY and more than 30 others like them, they sell under licence.

Taking a line or two from a PVH document, Mogale states: "Our philosophy and structures are unique. We operate within two business models instead one.

"We are organised by product-specific operating divisions for purposes of merchandising, design and sales, while organised across multiple divisions for the purposes of logistics, sourcing and marketing.

"This dual model is, by design."

Wow. If this get isn't profound, then I'm no sinner.

The idea of 16 Stitches was always bubbling in his head while he was still part of the Loxion Kulca troika. But it boiled over when he walked out on the company he helped form and turned into a multimillion-rand phenomenon.

"When the old man died, his son took over his role in the company.

"When the little disagreements started, I decided to walk away," Mogale said.

The "old man", who Mogale clearly loved, was a Greek businessman who funded him and his partner, Wandi Nzimande.

When they met Brian Abrams, who died in 2003, Mogale and Nzimande were both 20-something street merchants down on their luck.

"We eked out a living selling beanies and hats on the streets of Johannesburg," he said.

I put it to him that word out there on the streets was that their financier saw two young and naïve urchins with whom he could do a rent-a-darkie scam to make buckets of township money.

"Naw," he counters, without a touch of rancour.

When the market was good and sewn up and your colour was no longer crucial, they spat you out like a bad wine, I suggested.

"Naw, man, naw." Still unruffled.

"Fact of the matter is, the old man didn't even put up large amounts of money.

"His biggest contributions to the success of Loxion Kulca were his contacts in manufacturing and his sharp business sense.

"We (Mogale and Nzimande) came up with the concept and a huge, youth market that we understood.

"It was a collective effort until the day he died and we started experiencing a huge surge in the piracy of our products."

Nzimande is still part of the old outfit.

Though the new outfit has a mysterious and elegant name, why did he venture so far away from a gritty, in-your-face Loxion Kulca?

There's a bit of history there.

Mogale was born in exile on June 16 1976 in Lusaka, Zambia, where he was raised by grandparents.

When playing outside as a youngster, he became caught up in barbed wire. In his struggle to free, the wire ripped his face open. This left him scarred for life with 16 stitches in his chubby face. Hence the label.

Is there anything else that we can read into that birth date? June 16 ...

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