Like thousands of other young South Africans, Mazwe Tom faced unemployment after finishing Matric. The young man dreamed of studying fashion design but with no parents to finance further study, this dream seemed unattainable. However, while Tom may have much in common with his peers, his self-starter approach to life sets him apart. Unableto study formally but unwilling to “sit around doing nothing all day” he looked for the next best option, which came in the form of a community project training women to sew. “I was the only guy there but I didn’t care – I just wanted to gain some skills,” says the young entrepreneur who’s now the proud founder of start-up clothing outfit, Tom’s House.
Tom’s interest in fashion started at school, where he’d “renew” denim jeans for friends. “I started doing it to my own jeans to give them a unique look, but when friends saw them, they asked me to do theirs as well, so I built up quite a reputation,” he recalls. This early promise was fulfilled when he joined the community sewing centre. “We learned the basics of sewing – how to cut fabric and use a sewing machine. It was then that I realised this was my gift and started thinking that maybe I could make a living out of designing clothes,” he says.
Learning how to cut and sew garments was one thing; finding the money to buy the machinery and materials to do so was quite another. But while it may be true that start-up funding is more difficult to come across than an honest politician, it’s equally true that fortune favours the brave. Self-motivated people have a way of standing out and Tom was no exception. One of the women who ran the community project recognised his potential and put him in contact with Donné Nicols of Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Foundation, which is passionate about helping start-up businesses to get off the ground. “Before I knew it they had supplied me with a domestic sewing machine, an industrial sewing machine and an overlocker,” says Tom, “I was on my way.”
He started making clothes to order for members of his local community and word quickly spread about his unique edgydesigns. “I started off marketing the business by means of flyers as I didn’thave enough money to advertise in more expensive media, but the people who wear my clothes are really the best advertisement for the business. Other people stop them and ask them where they got the outfit, and they eventually end up at my door,” says Tom.
The journey hasn’t been without challenges however, and Tom says the most significant have been cash flow management and chasing clients for payment. Though modest in size and equipment, the business has grown. “In the first year it was only able to support me but in 2006 I was able to put aside some capital from profits,” he says proudly. When questioned about his success factors, Tom points to the uniqueness of the clothes he designs. “I get my inspiration from all over – from watching how individual people dress, to watching South African soap operas or MTV. But I never copy – my designs are 100% original soI take what I see, change it and put the Tom’s House stamp on it,” he says. Looking to the future, he has his sights set on becoming a top South African designer. And if his story proves anything, it’s that it pays to dream.
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