on 09 December 2015
I spot Andile Cele leaning against a streetlight pole as I approach DOPE Store.
He takes a long drag on his cigarette and extends his hand as I introduce myself and remind him about our meeting. “Yeah, I remember,” he acknowledges. “Great timing, let’s do this.”
The minimalist interior design of the store features a trendy logo which accentuates how the space cleverly incorporates elements of art. Andile walks in and gives me some context to what drew me to his store: the current art on exhibit.
Dahlia Maubane’s ongoing photographic series “Woza Sisi” is the first of a series of exhibitions. I mention that I’m particularly curious about the intersection of the world of visual arts and the retail space.
DOPE, which is an acronym for “Designer Original Products Enterprise”, specialises in selling unique collections by various designers.
“It’s a lifestyle store concentrating on world design, music, fashion and art. With the arts, it’s been on and off ever since we started, but now it’s a focused project,” he says.
The exhibitions, presented in partnership with NAZO!Arts and Projects were driven by a desire to attract more people to the store and to promote visual arts. Using an example of youngsters who may visit the store and buy a t-shirt while admiring the art, he says it’s his hope that when they grow up they’ll be able to afford to buy the art as well.
He ushers me towards a quieter spot in the store (Kanye West’s ‘Can’t tell me Nothing’ booms through the blaring speakers) and I notice a row of the “Woza Sisi” photographs lined up on one wall displayed between racks of various merchandise.
Andile tells me the entrepreneurial bug bit 10 years ago. He started by developing his first t-shirt and cap fashion line until it became a semi-full collection. The next step inevitably was to find a store to sell his product.
“I couldn’t find a store that I felt comfortable selling my brand from,” he says. So he opened his own store. As happens with many businesses in the creative economy, the lack of a desirable space led him to create his own.
Andile’s business (which he started in 2009) forms part of a creative economy that contributes R90.5 billion to the South African GDP. More than 562 000 jobs are created by this industry which is also 50% black - owned.
Viwe Lugongolo was employed by Andile and has been working as shop assistant for six months. He says he’s enjoying it thoroughly. “Andile knows what he’s doing,” says Viwe. Andile regards the role of a mentor as invaluable.
“It’s very, very, very important,” he says, “I found that there weren’t mentors or people who were doing what I was doing, so I decided to go overseas.”
He spent three years working for Next in the UK. Working in various departments gave him the knowledge he needed for working in the retail space.
“In the UK I relied on my own experiences. Obviously I still make mistakes, but I’m still writing my own blueprint.”
The entrepreneurship journey is never easy and is full of challenges. Johannesburg’s notorious crime has twice rendered Andile a victim (nearly bankrupting him on one occasion). Such challenges motivate him to continually stand out within the ultra-competitive creative industry.
Andile tells me that his success in such a saturated market is as a result of having great problem-solving skills.
“The biggest thing is figuring out how to solve problems. I thank God that I got exposed to Europe. You don’t have anything you can fall back on. That taught me that I must keep my mind open to solving problems,” he says.
More than 70% of entrepreneurs operating within this sector used their own revenue to start their businesses. Andile fits the bill.
“While working in England, I was saving up and that’s how I got my funds. I moved back to SA and felt the only place I could open my store was Jo’burg. So just walking through the streets, I found this space that I thought would be cool for my store. It was in the CBD, Marshalltown on Fox Street. So that’s where I opened the store and three years into that, I moved the store this side (corner Loveday and Commissioner streets,)” he says.
Working in the creative sector means that you are constantly aiming to stay ahead of the pack. Staying a cut above the rest drives Andile to keep working harder.
“It’s a little difficult working with the CMTs (Cut, Make and Trim) factories in terms of delivering stuff on time. But we work around that, so we try to get our stuff a little bit earlier than normal,” he says.
He also acknowledges that although buying decisions in most households are influenced by the youth he is targeting, spending power mostly lies with the older generation.
He winces and smiles as he adds, “We’re a boutique store, so we’re a little bit more expensive.”
For Andile, the vision is to use his own designs to influence various markets within the creative economy.
“The more influential I am, we’ll get that exclusivity and keep going,” he says.
Flexibility is vital. The notion of having an online store is one he’s toying with, although he believes that physical is always better.
He’s also working on expanding the brand. He aims to branch out in Pretoria this year – a move he admits is convenient because of its proximity to Johannesburg. When I ask him about further growth plans, he says he’ll remain open to the idea of working with an angel investor.
“Investors are money - driven people. We’re money - driven as well because we’re a business, but we’re more influencers than money - driven. The more influential we become, the money just comes,” he says.
He hopes that the exhibitions will amplify Dope Store’s influence within the creative sector and increase its reputation as a trendsetter and social influencer.
By: Phumzile Twala