The Sgonian Republik Story: From Selling Clothes From the Boot of His Car To Opening A Physical Retail Store

Interview and Article by Phesheya Mkhonta

Q: Tell us about yourself: where did you grow up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
A: I am a proudly Siteki-born and bred creative. Growing up I actually wanted to be an opera singer, but as fate would have it, fashion and clothing whisked me away.

Q: You wear many hats from being an entrepreneur, fashion designer, corporate communications professional, and talent manager, among others; which one remains your biggest passion, and how do you balance all of these interests?
A: You forgot “teacher” and ‘’chorister’’ in that mix, which I did for seven years before retiring in 2016 for the former and in 2019 for the latter. Did I also mention “politician”? LOL.

But to answer your question; I love how all these spaces have one common strand: Creativity. I am before all else, a creative, and all these experiences have firmly given me a perfect platform to make this love of mine. But to answer your question, my love for fashion wins the race. This has defined my being for quite some time.

Q: When did you discover your passion for the fashion industry?
A: I think I was around 9 or 10 years, whilst helping my dearly departed mother run her second-hand clothing business at the Siteki marketplace. I would assist her mostly after-school, on weekends, and during school holidays. What won me over was the look of contentment after a customer had gotten themselves a beautiful fit.

Over and above, I was fascinated by the fact that my mother was able to provide for us, taking us to one of the best schools in Eswatini and ultimately to University, all through her clothing business.

Q: Can you share with us the story of how you started Sgonian Republik, all the way back in 2008?
A: Actually, there is an under-told part of SGONIAN REPUBLIK’s history. The actualization of this idea started in 2002, I must have been doing my Form 4 at Siteki Nazarene High School. This is where my curiosity and obsession with brands started as I would draw some of the most visible brand logos on my exercise books. As I was doing this an idea for what was to be my own SGONIAN REPUBLIK logo, was born.

The turning point, however, happened around 2008 in the corridors of the then-University of Swaziland. I made a few samples of items I envisioned as part of what would be my “SR catalogue”. The reaction from my tertiary colleagues was so positive, we immediately established relations with most of the key campus influencers paired with social media (mainly Facebook and Pinterest) which gave us tremendous exposure. And guess what here we are today trading from our own flagship store: Ministry of Style and our online store:

Q: As one of Eswatini’s oldest and most well-recognized street-wear brands, what sets you apart, and how has this played a role in you achieving longevity?
A: I think what has guaranteed our staying power has been our obsession with originality and resistance to letting the trends of the day sway us away from our true aesthetic. This has helped us dictate the pace and rhythm of our market – and along the way, perhaps inspire other brands which exist today.

Worth mentioning is that; our obsession with originality explains why we have also obsessed about owning at least 98% of our value chain which has seen us have our own in-house production team which has in a way protected some of our trademark ideas.

Q: Why is it important for you to own the whole value chain, and what did it take to achieve this?
A: The ambition behind this was to have full control of the outputs of our work, mainly the quality and speed at which we get orders out to customers. Essentially, owning our value chain has meant a greater ability to control how best we connect and serve our customers. It took quite a lot of financial sacrifices of course, from the brick-and-mortar shop to the production equipment, amongst many other bits.

Q: You’re one of the very few local brands with their own physical outlet (Ministry of Style), tell us the motivation behind this move.
A: The biggest motivation was to finally be able to have point where our people would walk into a physical experience and access their SR away from the physical limitations of social media. It was to also bring to life our long-held desire to own our value chain as our production also happens within the Ministry of Style.

Lastly, we felt it was the best next step for the brand’s evolution after selling our apparel out of first a bag and later from a car’s boot. The brick-and-mortar idea was to bring much-need accentuation to our brand ambitions as a globally relevant brand out of the Kingdom of Eswatini.

Q: What philosophy guides Sgonian Republik creations and who do you cater to as a brand?
A: Our philosophy is: If we can’t wear it with pride, we will never sell it to the next person. Our ethos has from day one been to tailor clothing the discerning individual can be proud to own and don, every day – but it starts with that question: would it give us the pride to wear it? If yes, then we are fully on, the people will be styled.

We cater to the discerning millennial mostly, both ladies and gentlemen be they in corporate, tertiary, or out in the streets hustling for the next slice of bread. We also cater to large corporations through corporate wear and other organizations with track-suits, t-shirts, and other apparel which accentuates an organization’s brand visibility.

Q: The streetwear culture in the country has seen the emergence of a number of brands and increased recognition amongst the masses. What are your thoughts on the state and progress of local street-wear fashion culture?
A: I think ours remains a very self-destructing culture. Originality is the biggest catalyst of this destruction, worse for a space as tiny as ours. The number of brands in the space has grown exponentially, unfortunately not much has happened in terms of creativity, there is of course room for us all to do better and of course, delight our market with even more choices, textures, and styles.

Q: What are your future ambitions as Sgonian Republik?
A: The main outlook for us is to scale up our digital offering as a brand, that being our online store, which we have built and are always sharpening for better customer experiences which we believe will lead to better conversion and retention.

Q: If you could change one thing about the local creative entrepreneurship space, what would that be?
A: I think we could do with me more unification of industry players and perhaps, a deliberate effort by all players to serve our communities better. This would help as consumption preferences by the local market have significantly evolved to favour local brands. Hence the best we can do is meet them halfway through a better product: by quality and originality.

Q: What would your advice be to young creative entrepreneurs looking to follow in your footsteps?
A: Stay true to yourself and your purpose, which of course you must diligently find. Then let all else happen from there. It’s always easier with that truth to self as a departure point for everything, plans, dreams, and any other life discourses.

Q: Lastly, can you give us the names of five Emaswati that you feel are doing amazing things right now, in their respective creative or business spaces?
• Honest Lihle Mhlanga: a super-talented fine artist.
• Phila “Ph.D.” Dlamini: chemist turned doyen of the local Learning and Development space, currently acing it at Standard Bank Eswatini.
• Lwazi Dlamini: Italy-bound opera singer, fresh and firmly out of Siteki.
• Zinhle Matsebula: I don’t even have the vocabulary to perfectly describe this trailblazer.
• Lindokuhle “LeendorM” Mthupha: a 2022 Chevening scholar and a star long on the rise. Hers is a story and a future for the books.

IB: Thank you Sgonia for your time, it’s been great having this sit down with you.

Thank you, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

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