Malesela “Ouma” Tema’s Plus Fab fashion brand started long before she knew it, when she began shopping for fashion at the turn of the century just like all of her teenage peers. None of the popular clothing chains catered for her size, and the one business that did was far from fashionable. Ouma was young and gorgeous, and she wanted clothes that accentuated and embraced her curves, not hide them.
In an early sign of her entrepreneurial spirit – and her keen sense of fashion – she would buy the clothes she wanted and have them adjusted to her curves and her vision. Her creations were so striking that her fellow students at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), where she studied public management, often thought that she was one of the fashion students. Wherever she went, and whenever she posted pictures online, people wanted to know where she got her outfits.
Ouma, who was born in a small Limpopo village near Phalaborwa and raised by a single mother, grew to be a student leader and after her studies was recruited to the board of the TUT. When she went to work for the Department of Higher Education in Pretoria, she still did not have a clear idea of becoming a business owner. But by that time she was building a list of everyone who expressed interest in her outfits. “I just knew that I didn’t want to work for government all my life,” says Ouma, who found that the focus of her life shifted to her activities after hours – hanging out at a friend’s fashion studio, learning all she could about the industry, and building a database of potential clients.
By 2011, the idea of starting her own fashion brand had developed to such a point that she decided to put a summer collection of five dresses onto the market. She marketed her designs on social media, recruited one seamstress to work from her garage, and custom-made dresses for her growing number of clients.
While still working in her day job, Ouma actively marketed her range to celebrities whom she hoped would propel her brand to a new level. Her success was remarkable, winning over the likes of actor and poet Lebo Mashile, talk show host Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu and many others.
The idea was to build such a brand presence that customers would start asking for the Plus Fab range when they walk into the mainstream fashion shops. It worked, and soon Plus Fab’s stylish garments could be found in The Space, the high-end mall-based national fashion chain. It was a huge step-change for Ouma and her fledgling business, which had already moved out of her garage to an office. She realised that it would require all her attention to make sure the new surge of orders is fulfilled and in 2015 Ouma resigned from her government job.
She describes her transition to a full-time entrepreneur in terms that many business owners would recognise.
On the one hand the work was so much that she often had to cancel dates with friends or arrive nearly at the end of social gatherings. On the other hand, she felt that every minute she worked was her own, and very often it did not even feel like working. “It was a liberating experience,” says Ouma.
Fully embracing her identity as an entrepreneur, Ouma entered the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year which is run by Business Partners Limited. She was named runner-up in the Emerging 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year competition. Ouma says the experience validated her sense of being an entrepreneur. The vetting and evaluation process of the competition is real, and it helped her to see her performance as business owner from the perspective of the judges.
Soon Plus Fab took another huge leap forward. At first Ouma outsourced the manufacturing of her new retail orders to what is known in the industry as a cut-make-and-trim operation, usually a small clothing factory that receives the plans and the material from the design house, in this case Plus Fab.
In 2016, Ouma had the opportunity to buy the factory that fulfilled her orders, putting the business firmly in charge of its own products and orders. Ouma moved her whole business to a factory in the centre of Pretoria where her staff soon grew to 25. A remarkable feature of Plus Fab’s growth was the fact that Ouma never used outside finance, not even a bank overdraft. She did not even use her pension pay-out in her business when she resigned from her job and was able to draw a salary on the strength of the business from the start. She bought the factory based on a private deal with the previous owner to pay it off in instalments. She managed to grow by reinvesting every cent she made back into her business. If it was not for this frugality, Plus Fab might well have succumbed to the disaster that is the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the lockdown and social distancing, the demand for dresses and fashion items plummeted as social life and events froze, and 2020 turned out to be a hard year for Plus Fab. The fact that Ouma had her own factory meant that she could compete in the overcrowded market for face masks. As usual, Plus Fab produced stunning face masks, but the market was not big enough to sustain the factory at its usual size.
Another challenge is the rampant copying of her designs by cheap manufacturers overseas. She often finds her designs selling at knock-off prices on the local counterfeit markets.
In recent months, Ouma has had to work on downsizing and restructuring her factory.
But she is optimistic that 2021 will be a better year. Her brand is strong, and sales will no doubt rebound as South Africa emerges from the pandemic. But Ouma is under no illusion that pulling through will require another gear shift in how she runs her business. And that is something that she has proven to be good at.