Vanessa Gounden’s pop-up shop on Beauchamp Place near Harrods is a long way from the township in South Africa where she grew up. When she arrives for our interview, softly spoken but full of energy, I can feel the determination and ambition that has made her one of South Africa’s most successful female entrepreneurs.
She made her money in mining. Now, at the age of 50, she’s made a radical change, into fashion. Her aim is to compete with top-end global brands such as Chanel and Prada, with her own eponymous label.
She is opening a flagship store in Conduit Street later in the month. That’s an ambitious step, but once you know what Gounden has already achieved, it becomes distinctly possible.
From a township to the National Intelligence Agency
Having grown up in poverty during apartheid, the granddaughter of a sugar plantation worker, Gounden gained a university degree in human resources at the University of Pretoria.
She was a member of the ANC and worked with trade unions in Nelson Mandela’s administration. She then worked under President Thabo Mbeki, where she ran human resources for the National Intelligence Agency, recruiting the country’s top spies.
In 2003, Gounden teamed up with her husband, Sivi, a civil engineer, and launched HolGoun Investment Holdings, of which she is CEO.
Initially, it was a disaster. They invested their life savings in clean energy, but it flopped.
They then borrowed £100k and bought platinum prospecting rights and that was when they struck gold (well, platinum). They made a £20 million fortune and Vanessa is now reportedly worth £146 million.
South Africa’s most successful female entrepreneur
In the past few years the Goundens have diversified the business (which was 90 per cent mining) into fashion, lifestyle, leisure and health.
Vanessa admits that she started the investment company to make enough money to follow her passion and to launch her own fashion label, Vanessa Gounden.
They self-funded the process and all Vanessa will say when I ask how much they have invested so far is that it is “a very costly affair”.
Vanessa says nothing is too big a challenge for her and although fashion is about youth, she believes life experience counts for a lot.
“I think I am in a space where I can give my heart and soul to the creative part of me that has so far been suppressed. Now it is all about creating beautiful things for beautiful women.”
Referencing South Africa in her designs
Dressed in dark colours, creating a contrast with the brightly coloured prints hanging on the rails behind her, Vanessa says she draws inspiration for her designs from anything that catches her eye or “pricks that part of me that says, ‘This is about my conscience and I need to communicate this’.
“For instance I picked up a postcard and it had a gruesome picture of dumps and a figurine of pain and torture. I decided to make it my next print because I wanted to say that among all the garbage and dirt that humans create there is some sense of beauty.
“So I created a print called Wasteland, and it’s about how we contribute to it. The evolution from that postcard from the print to the story and the design is a rewarding process. I sit back and I think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could turn that into that concept’. That is very exciting.”
Vanessa uses graphic artists from around the world. But in the manufacture of the garments, is insistent on showcasing the talents in South Africa as, she says, many of these skills have gone to waste.
What is the market for your clothes?
“It is for affluent well-heeled women but really it is for women who are aspirational. I want my garments to be talked about, to create curiosity and satisfaction.
“The fashion market does not cater for 50-plus women, but 50-plus women spend more time in beautiful clothes and I want to cater for them. I want women who will invest in these pieces and hand them down to their daughters and granddaughters.”
Who would you like to see wearing your label?
“Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton epitomise the brand, and all other aspirational women.”
My top three tips for starting a business
“Believe in yourself, in your passion and your dream. If you have doubts then you have problems.
“You have to ensure that you understand the business.
“Surround yourself with the right people. Make sure that you are able to harness the best skills around you.”
What have been your biggest business mistakes?
“My biggest mistake has been underestimating how people perceive one in terms of the industry and for me to be able to manage that perception.
“One of the things I have learnt in the fashion industry is that our business model was based on a wholesale model and it is better when you take control of it all and go into retail as well, hence opening retail shops.
“It is a higher risk but a higher return. I have decided to take the bull by the horn and we are about to open our flagship store in London on Conduit Street.”
What skills have you bought with you from your previous business?
“Getting the financial model right; stretching the value of the money to get the maximum out of it. It is also about ensuring that people see this as a serious company.
“This is not a hobby. I want to build a sustainable business and hopefully in five years’ time I will be able to tell you another story. “
Where do you see the brand in five years’ time?
“I would love to see my retail stores in five or six different countries, possibly five, ten, 15 outlets, and I see it as something where we built serious collaboration with artists. I see it as a very successful business in five years’ time.”
How did you celebrate your 50th birthday?
“I launched my brand on my 50th birthday so celebrated by hosting a fashion show in London. It was an amazing experience but the hard work really started the next day.
With Coco ChaneI as her inspiration and a byline on her profile that says her clothes are ‘To be worn with attitude’, we hope she goes far.