Taking androgynous male fashion to the masses Thabo Khumalo, owner of clothing brand ToVch, has come a long way from sewing his own clothes on his mother’s sewing machine. Today, he is well on his way to becoming one of the top names on the local fashion
taught fashion designer and entrepreneur from Soweto, Thabo Khumalo, is the owner of androgynous fashion brand ToVch (pronounced “touch”), which he founded in 2010. In 2014 he was runner-up in the SA Fashion Week (SAFW) Scouting Menswear Competition, opening doors for him to showcase his designs on the runway with some of SA’s most well-known designers and brands, including House of Olé, Ephraim Molingoane (Ephymol), Roman Handt, Paledi Segapo (Palse Homme), Gert-Johan Coetzee and Craig Jacobs.
What did you do prior to starting your own business?
I started sewing and redesigning clothes at the age of eight. I used to redesign the clothes my mother had bought me. I broke a few sewing machines and needles, which got me into a lot of trouble with my mom until she decided to sell me one of her old sewing machines when I was 19. In the beginning I did not take fashion seriously and would only sew and redesign my own clothes, so no revenue was generated. I had to find work to survive – my first job was managing a hair salon. Overseeing its daily operations gave me insight on what it takes to run a business and inspired me to follow my passion.
Where did the idea come from and what is the inspiration behind your collection?
I identified a gap in the local market for menswear. The female fashion industry was saturated and competitive, while fashion for men was less crowded and beginning to show rapid growth. The menswear market is growing as more men feel that their appearance is important and are willing to invest more time, effort and money on their grooming and appearance. ToVch is inspired by street fashion and Generation Z. ToVch imparts a feminine touch to menswear and brings masculinity to feminine dressing. My first sale was through friends. They loved my clothes and style and would place orders. After I showcased my work at the Mpumalanga and Soweto Fashion Weeks, some boutiques noticed my designs. One boutique with stores in The Glen, The Zone, Maponya Mall and East Rand Mall, approached me to supply their shops – a dream come true for a young designer from Soweto.
Initially I experienced the normal hiccups, like late, irregular, and incomplete payments. But this did not deter me. I am currently supplying to Fashion Kraal, situated in Johannesburg. They also have an online store. We also have clients who walk into our studios.
When did you officially start operating?
I registered the company in 2010 as Ghetto Bling, inspired by Soweto street fashion and glamour. We later relaunched to Touch Of Bling to launch in the SAFW Scouting Menswear Competition. We’ve since changed the name to ToVch in order to appeal to a wider market.
How did you get funding to get started?
While working as a hair salon manager, I saved up all the money that I made after work and during weekends from my fashion business. I raised just about enough to afford three months’ rental for a studio in the Johannesburg CBD, which I initially shared with other designer friends. My business could finally move out of my mom’s house in Soweto.
How did you come to enter SA Fashion Week (SAFW)?
staying up to date with the local fashion industry (I follow SAFW on social media and read fashion and entrepreneurship publications). It was a tough competition – the selection criteria are very stringent and the judging panel very strict. You need to be authentic and know your story as a designer. From 14 designers, seven went through to the finals and I was selected as first runner-up.
As a finalist, I could showcase at the SA Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2015 Collections in October 2014 to an audience of buyers, media and fashion leaders. I got introduced to different markets and big fashion industry players – the resultant growth of the brand led to the rebranding (as ToVch) in order to cater for different markets.
“Ours is a premium and exclusive brand and our products are tailor-made according to the customer’s specifications, which makes the production process costly.”
What have been the three biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?
Competing with an influx of wellestablished brands by big retailers and boutiques, and imports of low-quality Chinese products and global brands. Ours is a premium and exclusive brand and our products are tailor-made according to the customer’s specifications, which makes the production process costly.
Exploitation by boutiques. Violation of terms and conditions of contracts, including payment conditions. We now sign contracts with clear and comprehensive terms and conditions with whomever we do business.
Marketing the brand with limited funds. We use social media and word-of-mouth to market the brand. We also engage celebrities to be our ambassadors by dressing them for special events.
Biggest lesson learnt?