Lesley Whitter, founder of Heart & Heritage label and of Convoy, has opened a new shop and studio space in Johannesburg. Ever since she launched Heart & Heritage in 2013, she’s been working from her mother’s basement. “The time has come for me to move out,” says Lesley. She will both make and sell from her new space in Craighall Park. Sales will cover the rental cost, with the added benefit of market exposure, she says. Lesley has no intention of giving up her responsibilities at Convoy, a collaborative retail space operating in Melville and in Cape Town. “Convoy is my baby, so I’m definitely not going anywhere.” We caught up with Lesley (pictured immediately below), and asked about her business and thoughts on sustainable fashion:
First, let’s talk about Convoy. Why did you start this collaboration? I wanted retail space and couldn’t afford good space on my own, so I joined forces with like-minded designers. What started with six designers in a shop in Melville has grown into a really wonderful business with unlimited designers, an online store and a second shop on Bree Street in Cape Town. We all share the cost of running the store. I manage the collaboration on behalf of all the designers. Each designer has a space in the store and we all brainstorm together on how we would like the store to look, feel and run to ensure our designs are being well represented.
How have you managed to run Convoy and your own label? It hasn’t been easy, but having the right team in place and support from all the designers in Convoy has made it possible.
Tell me about Heart & Heritage. Heart & Heritage is a lovingly-made, Johannesburg-produced, women’s clothing range. We treasure the detail in our work and find beauty in unique silhouettes and shapes. We favour working in a subtle colour palette with soft and natural fabrics as our canvas, using hand detailing to add depth to our work. I’m not trying to take over the world. I am happy to grow my label within Convoy. I want to keep my designer collection made-by-hand. I think that is what my customers value about my collection too.
How does Heart & Heritage speak to sustainability? All the Convoy designers produce in South Africa, supporting local industry, employment and fair wages. We’re not mass producing in pollution-generating factories or making excess fast fashion garments that will be thrown away after the next fast fad takes over.
Where do you source fabric? I source from local fabric shops and wholesalers in Johannesburg. This is the least glamorous part of being a fashion designer, as fabric shopping usually entails climbing up floors in warehouses in the city centre and haggling down prices at the Oriental Plaza.
What is your greatest barrier to being 100% sustainable? We don’t have textile mills in South Africa which could potentially supply cost effective fabrics. The fabrics we have access to are from China or India. Its hard to know the back story of what you are buying, which may or may not be sustainable. This is a real challenge.
What’s your vision for Heart & Heritage? I plan on growing Convoy online as that is where I see the future of retail. When Convoy grows, so does Heart & Heritage.
What challenges do you face being a South African designer? I think it’s hard for a South African designer to make an impression internationally. It would be great if there we’re more initiatives or platforms to globalise South African design.
Tell us about your career since graduating? I was a student for six years: I did a three-year BCOM degree in business at the University of Johannesburg and then another three- year diploma in fashion design. Clearly I loved the fashion course more as I passed this cum laude. The two qualifications have been complementary, I use my business sense in a creative field. After my studies, I really struggled to find a job in South Africa, I tried my hand in London, which proved even more difficult as the market there is flooded with aspiring young designers. After working unpaid as an intern and a long and painful job hunt, I landed a job managing a clothing boutique in Notting Hill called Couverture and The Garbstore, where I learnt about retail. It was a whole new world for me of “not-the-high-street” ready-to-wear fashion.
When I visited my sister in Toronto, Canada for Christmas one year, she convinced me to pack as if I weren’t going back to London. I stayed! I only had a visitor’s visa, so I worked from my sister’s basement sewing clothes which my sister sold at sales parties for her neighbourhood friends. Eventually, we couldn’t keep up with the demand and outsourced manufacturing to a factory. It grew into quite a nice little business, but after two years and too many failed attempts at obtaining a work visa, I returned to South Africa.
Back home, I managed a group of boutiques with my newfound retail and selling experience. I became frustrated working for someone else. In the meantime, I had been selling my own collection, Heart & Heritage, at weekend markets. After saving enough to sustain myself for six months, I quit, giving myself a half a year to sink or swim.
Thankfully I managed to swim.
*Heart & Heritage’s new studio | shop is at 20 Marlborough Avenue, Craighall Park, JHB