Jenni Button is bouncing out of her chair, talking a mile a minute about her new ventures as she sits in her Parkhurst-based Philosophy boutique, surrounded by garments in a riot of gorgeous colours of luxurious fabrics. The energy that radiates from her is electric.
It’s Friday afternoon and the feisty blonde is in high spirits, throwing her head back and laughing loudly as she recounts how she made (and lost) her name in fashion. You get the distinct impression she’s like this most of the time.
To listen to her rattle off ideas, you’d never guess this was someone who recently lost a major court battle in which she was hoping to be awarded what she believed were her rightful shares from the sale of the Jenni Button fashion company. And she was barred from ever attaching her name in any way to any clothing brand in South Africa.
“To add insult to injury, the economy took a complete nosedive, which means I had to borrow money from the bank to build my guest house, my latest venture – not a great time to be building or borrowing money from banks, let me tell you!
And I lost my two beloved cats to feline leukemia,” she says of the year that she describes as ‘an absolute shocker.’It’s the kind of year that would make even the most battle-hardened businessperson give up and go home, but astonishingly, Button is brimming with confidence, exuding the kind of energy, enthusiasm and passion one associates with young entrepreneurs who are still blissfully naive and have yet to learn how it can all go horribly wrong.
She simply refuses to lie down and die. Hers is a story of troubled times, and how to bounce back. Here’s how she did it.
It all started off happily enough. Jenni Button first made her name as a fashion designer at the age of 23 when she opened her first Jenni Button clothing store in Adderley Street, Cape Town, in 1984.
“I’d left advertising to do my own thing and had always been passionately interested in fashion, the female form and making women look beautiful,” says the former fine arts student. She worked from home. “I’d do all the cutting on the bed, and the lounge was full of garments and ironing boards – crazy times!” she remembers.
The young designer caught the fashion world’s attention. Her extreme minimalist style in muted tones of blacks, whites, greys and beige stood out in stark contrast to the patterned, coloured prints that dominated fashion in the mid-80s. “In many ways I was lucky. I was designing the kinds of clothes I loved to wear back then, but I was also in the right place at the right time,” she says.
It was a time when minimalist designers like Georgio Armani and Calvin Klein were just coming to the fore. Women were coming to realise their power in the boardroom and were dressing accordingly.
Partners & growth
Right from the start the store took off. “It was absolutely amazing. We couldn’t produce the clothes fast enough – part of the reason the store looked so minimalist was because sometimes we literally only had four or five garments left to sell,” Button laughs.
Within a year she had brought in partners Mandy. Chemaly and husband-and-wife team Liz and Phil Biden. Both Chemaly and Liz Biden played a hands-on managerial role in the company, leaving Button free to design. Phil Biden took up the position of chairman.
The company opened stores in Hyde Park, Sandton City, Claremont and a second Cape Town city store. At its height there were six stores in total. Jenni Button became synonymous with understated elegance, sexy sophistication and ‘Queen of the boardroom’ style.
She became famous for dressing South African celebrities, such as news anchors Gillian van Houten and Doreen Morris and many participants in the annual Best Dressed Woman of South Africa award. Internationally, she became popular among international film stars, with Bo Derek and Jacqueline Bisset listed as clients.
The Jenni Button label was a key showcase in all of South Africa’s major fashion shows, including Lucilla Booyzen’s SA Fashion Week. Then in 1997 the company decided to sell. “Mandy Chemaly was ill at the time and didn’t want to be in the rag trade anymore. We were approached by The Platinum Group and decided to sell,” Button says.
It was the start of what was to become her biggest mistake, one that ended unhappily in court in October 2008 when a judgment brought to a close the sorry tale of how not to sell a business.
To cut a long story short, Button and her partners sold 70% of the business to The Platinum Group in 1997. At the time of the sale Button owned only 35% of the company. She ceded 5% to her partners, who owned the remaining 65%, so that The Platinum Group could purchase the 70% they were looking for.
A written agreement at the time of the sale stipulated that she would be offered at least a 30% interest in the new company. But – and this is the crucial bit – the agreement stated that the terms and conditions of this interest would be decided at a later date.
She would work in the new company for two years and that during that time, a shareholders’ agreement would be drawn up. It was all a bit vague and worryingly lacking in concreteness.
No shareholders’ agreement was drawn up and it slowly dawned on Button, who was working at the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company, that her requests to finalise the shareholding and transfer the promised 30% shares to her name were falling on “deliberately” deaf ears.
She brought a court application in which the judge ultimately found that, “for reasons of vagueness and unenforceability” the provision in the agreement to give Jenni Button 30% was void. The shares were never transferred to her name. “I didn’t have a legal leg to stand on,” she says.
At the time that Button brought a court application to transfer the shares to her name, the Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd group brought a counter-application to bar her from using her name in her new clothing range, which was called ‘Philosophy’, but which she marketed as being ‘by Jenni Button’.
The court ruled that, on purchase, the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company had acquired all the goodwill to the ‘Jenni Button’ name. Although there was no registered trademark, the court found that for Jenni Button, the person to use the ‘Jenni Button’ name, infringed the goodwill rights that the Pty (Ltd) company had to the trademark.
All this begs the question: “What on earth were you thinking?”. What would make a smart businesswoman with experience enter into an agreement to sell her own name, without any concrete safeguards in place to ensure she got an appropriate payment for it?
It’s not the selling of the trademark that’s baffling; Donna Karen did it, but she was handsomely remunerated, something that Button sadly cannot claim. These are questions that Button has had to answer thousands of times, and has no doubt turned over in her own mind many more, and she takes them in her stride.
She says: “The deal was done and signed in two days. So firstly it was rushed because the buyer was going overseas and it needed to be finalised quickly. Secondly, it’s not that I got bad legal advice; I didn’t get any legal advice. That was my single biggest mistake. I was naive and I thought I was in good hands. I trusted too much. I truly believed that the provision in the agreement to offer me 30% in shares would be honoured. After all, I was going off to work in this new company.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption to make. Together with The Platinum Group, she was going to help take the Jenni Button brand to new heights and, although she’d sold the rights to her name, she believed she’d own 30% of the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company, so the pay-off made sense.
Learning the lessons
“I believe that everything in life teaches a lesson, so let me tell you the one I learned: never agree to a rushed deal and never, ever, ever do any kind of deal without getting your lawyers to look at it,” Button says emphatically, describing herself as “totally lawyered up these days.”
It’s a lesson she’ll never forget. She’s registered the rights to her name overseas and sells the Philosophy range through Jenni Button International. “No one can use my name overseas without my permission – and that’s something they won’t get,” she says.
She’s also registered Jenni Button Jewellery and Jenni Button Gallerie locally and overseas. Philosophy has been running internationally for nine years and exports to London, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona. The label has developed a loyal following, particularly in LA, and among the likes of Charlize Theron, Marla Maples and Cheryl Tiegs.
Button is adamant that she never wants to endure the drama of another legal fight ever again. But while she describes the process as “totally destructive” and while it might have been financially crippling, it clearly wasn’t creatively so.
In spite of the court case, the economic downturn and other personal challenges, last year was one in which Jenni Button had enough creative energy to start three new ventures. The first, and perhaps the one she’s most passionate about, is her new guest house, Maison du Sud, currently under construction on the side of the mountain in Oranjezicht, Cape Town.
“That court judgment was absolutely devastating, but the day I walked out of there last year I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be up there, on the top of that mountain running my guest house,” she says.
She describes it as a luxury residence offering a completely unique experience: “There are only four suites and it’s priced between R3 500 and R7 000 per person per night. I am going to run it myself, which means I plan to do most of the cooking and the hosting.
So it will be like coming to stay at Jenni’s, but with a combination of exclusivity, privacy and luxury – all on top of the mountain set amongst gorgeous old oak trees.” She’s combining this new venture with her old passion for painting, which she plans to pursue in the studio that is being built in the guest house for that purpose.
She also plans to host painting getaways where guests can take a package that includes accommodation at the guest house and access to painting time in the studio. “I also want to host regular cocktail parties there to promote fantastic local artists,” she adds.
Button has employed her creative eye in doing all the decorating for Maison du Sud. “The style is very ‘French meets African’ and I’ve used some beautiful antiques that I’ve been collecting for a long time,” she says.
In fact, creativity, decorating and hospitality are connected to her other two ventures, one of which is corporate clothing. Button landed the contract to do the corporate wear for Sol Kerzner’s luxury One & Only Resorts establishment, which opened in Cape Town this year.
The other is interior decorating, and she’s been approached by Toni Stern, the owner of the luxury floating 150ft house-boat hotel, the Zambezi Queen, to do the interiors. And although she knows she doesn’t yet have a reputation as a painter, she’s already started work establishing one.
Her first work, a portrait of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, sold for R250 000. Button will continue to be involved in Philosophy, running the online store but leaving the day-to-day running of that business to Noel Hibner, who’s been with her for 15 years. “I will always love fashion and the rag trade, but I want to move into other creative fields now,” she says.
The living brand
Button markets all of these ventures through the extensive network she’s built up over the years. There’s no doubt that she’s a born salesperson and that, combined with her creativity, is what made her successful in the first place. It’s also what she’ll draw on in future to grow her ideas into successful enterprises.
Looking back on it all she concludes, “I suppose that’s why I’m able to feel at peace with everything that’s happened. I realised that a brand is not a label or a sign outside a door. A brand can be a person – think of Madonna or Sol Kerzner.
It’s a living thing that’s made up of the sum of all the ideas, creativity and all the positive energy that you have.” Understanding the power of this brand essence has enabled Button to start again. “When someone takes everything away from you, they can’t take that. It’s the most important thing you have and it’s the thing that you can draw on to build success any time you choose,” she concludes.
Jenni Button’s secrets to success & inspiration
- If you don’t have absolute passion and pure conviction about your business venture, don’t bother doing it.
- Being naive has its virtues in business but make sure you get all your admin perfectly in place. Many an otherwise savvy business person has been brought down because they didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it came to issues of partnership agreements, tax or legal documents.
- If you choose to delegate (something I don’t do easily) make sure you check and double-check that it’s been done, and done properly. Your business relies on it.
- Make sure you have a business plan and that it covers all potential areas of risk.
- Do not procrastinate! “Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.” – Don Marquis
- Change your thoughts and you can change your position in life. “It’s not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it’s the one that’s most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
- “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” – Napoleon Hill.
- Refuse to be a victim! “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” – Steven Biko
- Be flexible. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
- “If moment by moment you can keep your mind clear then nothing will confuse you.” – Sheng Yen