THE NEW FACE OF SA CLOTHING
Top textile executive Herman Pillay is working hard to invigorate the sector
TCI Apparel chair and CEO Herman Pillay, at the age of just 41, is arguably the face of the new generation of South Africa’s clothing and textile executives who are reviving the clothing sector – one factory at a time – and providing local fashion designers with a platform to showcase their work. Pillay, whose parents worked as a seamstress and a manager in the industry, employs 3 652 people in South Africa, and has businesses in Turkey and Mauritius after rescuing a string of failed companies on his way to the top.
He has won the respect of workers, unionists and government, which have all called on him at some stage to intervene in the flailing sector.
His business is one of the largest suppliers to Woolworths, Truworths and Edcon.
He operates three clothing factories in KwaZulu-Natal, a factory in the Western Cape, a clothing business in Mauritius that includes a textile mill, and is a partner in a suit manufacturing business in Turkey.
He is the chair of the Wear South African campaign, which encourages local design and manufacturing of clothing to supply 24 retail stores, including Blue Collar White Collar and Magents, across the country.
He also recently established Africa’s first green design centre in Cape Town, where retail design teams collaborate with the business.
The centre is the first industrial green building of its kind, with eco vinyl tiles, LED lighting, solar power, indoor plants, strategically tinted windows, environmentally sensitive ceiling boards, living walls and a vegetable garden.
But it has been an unusual journey for Pillay, who got his first clothing job as a work study officer at JC Creations in Durban, where then owner Johan Claasen saw his potential.
“Claasen started me in the cutting room and moved me around different parts of the business. I decided to learn everything and was very entrepreneurial in my thinking, and he picked that up,” Pillay says.
Claasen had big plans for Pillay to head a new business in Mauritius, but three days after announcing this, he was murdered during a robbery.
Pillay later resigned and started buying and selling machinery and manufactured goods, and, in 1997, he got his big break when a Mr
Price supplier approached him to assist with production.
“I found a factory to manufacture those orders and they were impressed because what I achieved in two weeks they couldn’t achieve in three months, so they gave me a massive contract to do all their production,” Pillay says.
Pillay set up a sourcing agency and had 28 factories working for him before he opened his first factory in Durban.
He also opened a men’s suit business, Sartoria Milano, in Turkey, and several other businesses before focusing on clothing. “In 2010, I decided to expand to the Western Cape. I went to set up a business, but I was introduced to a business that was going to close, so I thought I would buy it and save some jobs. It was about 200 jobs,” Pillay says. “When I saved those jobs, another business found out and told me they were also in trouble, and they asked me to go and have a look at it. While I doing that deal, the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union called,” Pillay says.
The union wanted Pillay to help rescue two clothing factories owned by the then JSE-listed Seardel, the largest employer in the sector at the time, in the Swartland, Western Cape.
“There were 750 people who lost their jobs. When the women in the community found out that a potential buyer was coming, they all pitched up at the factory to ask us to help and said that they had no money to buy food to eat. I had to do something,” Pillay says.
When Pillay bought the third-largest clothing manufacturer in Mauritius, Star Knitwear Group, in 2015, it was another broken business saved.
“When I did the due diligence, I found they were supplying Topshop, River Island, Forever 21, Superdry and Urban Outfitters in the UK. They had the international customer base checked,” he says.
Now, Pillay is leveraging this business to import fabric he previously had to source from China due to a lack of local production, and he produces “fast fashion” for retailers with his finger on the international pulse.
“The biggest challenge is the limited resources we have in the supply chain – availability of yarn and of mills in South Africa to really step up and manufacture the fabric that is in demand – and uncompetitive trading conditions.”
However, Pillay is upbeat about growth prospects. “Investment has to be made in the infrastructure and supply chain of the clothing and textile industry to give the industry a fighting chance – this could lead to thousands of jobs being created in the sector.”