Then & now
The world looked very different when the Me&B brand launched in February 2018. Back then there was only Me&B Sourcing, the family business, offering design, sourcing and production services to South African retail brands. The brand began as a creative side hustle, a project Betina's husband once called their 'corner cafe.' After a couple of years of capsule collections at 12-30 units per style, 2020 happened, and it looked like the corner cafe's time was up.
Instead of closing up shop, Kelly and Betina doubled down, doggedly iterating their way through the messy middle. Now 4 years and 4 months in, Me&B can focus on growth over survival. Their 100% online business (at the time) and mostly South African supply chain made them one of several local fashion, beauty and lifestyle winners in 2020's early lockdowns. "In the beginning we were making a smaller margin, and basically just increasing our margin by how many units we made," Kelly explains. "Once we were doing year-5 figures in lockdown, we realised there was a business."
Me&B moved into The Palms Décor & Lifestyle Centre this January and opened its second store there in April. Their bright, bubbly style decorates a small storefront on an upper floor, with a design office, a pattern & sampling studio and an e-commerce photography space behind it (production is done offsite with 12 local factory partners). While their own online store is their main focus, Me&B is also available at Zando, Superbalist and boutiques in Durban and Namibia.
In June, I sat down with Kelly & Betina at their Palms office as they shared the details of their business journey and the decisions that have kept Me&B's growth going.
Start with a winning team
Kelly began her career as a buyer at TFG, graduating from their trainee program and staying for over 6 years across the girl's wear, women's active and women's knits departments. Before that, she'd already worked in the family business on university holidays alongside Betina, a DUT alum who has held different roles designing and producing retail chain clothing in South Africa for 36 years.
Between Kelly's high energy approach to brand management, Betina's production experience and their shared healthy work ethic and partner dynamic, Me&B seemed to have success on the cards from day one. An unpredictable market and a pandemic would later prove that even the perfect team isn't offered any guarantees.
Spend to make
Kelly & Betina's ideal, experienced backgrounds didn't spare them the unique challenges of starting a fashion business in South Africa, but did position them for 2 advantages: Time to amass personal assets and save money (time that some young designers don't have, don't feel they have or don't want to invest), and the experience to know how to spend it well. Over 4 years, they've invested more than R4 million of personal savings and access bonds in Me&B, taking on a high level of personal risk because they are confident they're on to something.
That risk has so far paid off to the tune of 100x revenue growth between mid 2020 and the end of 2021, the financial year that Me&B closed at R24 million in annual revenue. While the business hasn't graduated to healthy profit yet, revenue is now taking care of expenses and can support growth without further personal investment. "You grow your staff, you grow your overhead; that's the only way to handhold it to grow," Kelly says. "Clothing is terrible because you're only as good as your last season. So you can call it wrong and have a bad season, and then that's all your profit."
Invest in direct channels
No one was left untouched by the global supply chain's 2021 chaos. When a Spring collection fabric delivery originally shipped in May only arrived in August, just two weeks ahead of the on-time summer delivery, Me&B needed a plan to move the excess stock their suppliers were now rushing to finish. As timing would have it, that plan was Me&B's first standalone store at 44 Stanley.
"I have two kids and a husband and I was like, 'Come with me, let's go to Joburg and set up the store,'" Kelly recounts. "We said two months in the beginning... I found a nanny for my one child, I found a school for the other one, I was just like come, we're going to quickly do this. We ended up staying for three and a half months because that's actually how long it takes to set up a store; don't let anyone fool you. Because I had no contacts, I've never done point of sale... it was crazy."
Three and a half months and approximately a quarter of a million rand later (close to half the initial quotes collected), the store opened its doors on 1 October 2021 — and covered the month's rent on the first day of trade. "We were scared of brick & mortar, obviously, but now we realise it's actually the best, because, how are people going to trust your brand immediately? That's by touch and feel and try-on. So that's when it sort of kicked in, because I think everyone's selling a pretty picture online," Kelly detailed.
With direct channels requiring so much more investment, steady wholesale revenue is the dream for many emerging brands, but it comes with what is often a difficult relationship to stand your ground in. Retailers' & e-tailers' distribution power, marketing budgets and dependable repeat orders are wholesale pros that growing, independent brands sometimes feel they can't do without. "It's so nice because they buy a hundred, a hundred and fifty units of one style, and that's huge risk taken off our plate," Kelly explains. Conversely, these retail businesses are also partial to aggressive discounting that can erode a brand's positioning. Me&B is considering another physical location, as well as potentially ending or limiting their wholesale commitments to explore the potential upside in more traffic and sales on their own channels.
Get the product right
Kelly & Betina solved their own pain point: a shortage of bright, fun, style-conscious fashion beyond size 34. They're solving the same problem for a large, motivated local consumer group and challenging an old hypothesis within South African fashion: that in a market with so little discretionary income and only a small, highly divergent group of people with discerning consumption habits, most people simply don't care enough about the nuances of style to make it a differentiator.
"You can't have something that's too structured, you've got to have something that fits a lot of body types," Kelly explains, detailing how their design sensibility works with their sales data to inform collections. Product is most consistently shaped by the brand book (developed for Me&B by a freelance strategist), sales, and well-informed gut feel. They've learned lessons on balancing community input with trusting their expertise, particularly after a dress that only went into production following high praise on Instagram took two summer seasons to sell through.
Even with solid strategy in place and sales data to help, nailing the correct product volume each season can be a difficult balancing act when a brand is growing fast. "We've obviously had our experience with producing for the big retailers; we know how to do things fast, and like, a lot, 'cause that's what they expect," Kelly explains, "So we've sort of been applying that to our business, which is really scary. I think we've gone very wide now this winter; it's the first time we've done a lot of styles." Betina expands, "I think if we had planned it as that we would actually have been better off... so now for Summer, we're going to do the drops. We worked out that we actually don't need that many styles; we need like 4 every Wednesday." "Just to capture people and then they go to the website.. people have to see things like 5 times before they actually buy," Kelly adds.
Make the most of your data
In 3 days of designer interviews for African Fashion Weekly, I heard repeated praise for the same business intelligence tool: DEAR, an enterprise management system that brings every part of a business into one interoperable dashboard. "This is what has changed our lives, because we can sleep at night," Kelly says. Alongside supply chain woes, Me&B was growing faster than their systems and processes could keep up with. "By the end of 2021 we were almost on burnout. We'd outgrown our current offices by that stage, I felt so separate to everyone because I was in Joburg not dealing with what was happening here, and everyone here was just having an absolute mess... 2021 was terrible." When the time came to centralise controls and point-of-sale ahead of opening the Johannesburg store (and moving the Cape Town office), Kelly went to other small business owners for help.
Hannah Lavery introduced her to DEAR, a platform that connects store front, accounting, inventory and more for data-rich enterprise resource planning. After implementation in October 2021, it took until May 2022 to onboard the team, define and assign roles, and with the help of a consultant, understand how it can work for their business. "It's worth every cent," Kelly says.
Instead of more of the same, Me&B's future looks like a host of new ways for both consumers and industry to connect with the brand. A search for export opportunities is on hold after an unfruitful trip to trade shows in Copenhagen, but Revive, a pilot repair and alterations service, is doing well. An exciting emerging design talent pipeline experiment is a goal for the near future, as a collaboration with other local brands who would all take on a student or graduate designer to work with and include their work in that season's collection. In design, summer's collections will pivot away from previous learnings and offer some soft structure inspired by reigning trends to see how the growing customer base responds to variety. One off samples will soon be available online and in-store as a new line called 'Me&nt to B.'